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What the Back of a Painting Reveals About Its History

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Sometimes the back of a painting can be as fascinating as the front. The meaning behind many famous paintings is an ongoing source of discussion in the art world. While the story of a painting’s meaning might be debatable, oftentimes the back of a painting reveals a story more easily than the front.

Much can be learned from the back of a painting. Sometimes the back of a painting reveals important information about the work that can’t be interpreted just by viewing it. While the artist’s style, composition, and signature are considered the most revealing information when viewing a painting, most people are unaware of the important information hiding in the back of it.

Why We Examine the Back of a Painting

Experts examine the back of a painting to obtain information they cannot get by looking at it. By looking at the back of a painting they often can find the stamp of the canvas maker or another art supplier. Sometimes the back of a painting will reveal inscriptions by the artist themselves, such as a date and title. While most artists give their work a title, famous artist Pablo Picasso challenged the convention claiming he had nothing to do with titles of his works. It was Picasso’s intention that his work speak for itself saying that “a painter has only one language.” In the event that a painting appears to be untitled, gallerists and other experts turn to the back of a painting for information.

The most informative backs of paintings are those that offer descriptions of a scene, figure or location that is depicted in the painting. These short bits of information offer experts a glimpse into the mind of the artist.

Sometimes a gallerist or other art expert will find labels that give a picture of the painting’s history such as which auction houses, galleries, or museums it was displayed in previously. For paintings where little is known about the paintings exhibition history, oftentimes examining the back of the painting involves determining whether the wood supports are old or new. Just as the gallery goes through a process to obtain the painting itself, examining the back of a painting is part of an intensive process that involves studying the painting from stretcher to frame. That intense study helps art experts learn more about provenance and conditions of the painting. 

What You Can Learn from the Back of a Painting

One of the most important things examining the back of a painting can reveal is where the painting has been and who had possession of it. Labels and stickers found on the back of a painting often reveal names and contact information of galleries the painting was previously displayed in. It’s common for a label to be placed on the back of a painting when it is loaned out from a gallery, often to another gallery for exhibition. Famous paintings often have numerous labels on their backs, creating a trail that tells a history of their exhibitions. Art experts can tell if a painting has entered a new country through labels placed by border and customs agencies. Even more telling, these labels might include a description and an amount the painting was appraised for. Recent markings such as a barcodes signal that the painting was inventoried by a dealer, auction house, or gallery. Labels and stickers such as these give art dealers important background information about a painting. Occasionally, they lead to discovering that a painting that someone paid a few dollars for is worth hundreds of times more.

While it’s considered the norm to find an artist’s signature at the bottom on the front of a painting, sometimes the signature of the artist is found on the back. While words written on the back of a painting are referred to as inscriptions, signatures sometimes are found among them. In some cases, inscriptions are hidden messages from the artist that prompt an investigation of their own. More times than not, they’re simply descriptions and notes about the work in progress. However, finding an artist’s signature on the back of the canvas gives some insight into the artist as they are not restricted by space. Evangelist on the Beach is one such painting where artist Ben Stahl’s large and loopy signature can be found on the back of the painting among other information.

When evaluating a painting for its value and significance, examining the back of the painting can give an indication of its provenance or place of origin. Labels that are dated are helpful when trying to establish where the painting came from. Handwriting experts can also be of help as they can sometimes determine the time period an artist’s signature was created.

The back of a painting exposes the canvas and often times the canvas offers information about the painting as well. A basic rule that art experts keep in mind when looking at the back of the canvas is that dark wood and old nails generally indicate an old painting. Up until 1940, wood was always attached to the canvas with nails, a good indication of a painting’s age. After 1940 nails were replaced by staples in canvases. Hardware that appears fairly clean on the back of a painting usually indicates the canvas has been reframed or removed and new wood attached. It’s not uncommon for canvases to be reused by artists. If this is the case, the backside of a painting might reveal a rough sketch of the painting while in the works or a sketch of an entirely different work.

How the Back of a Painting Affects its Value

Sometimes a painting will surprise experts with a rapid and continual increase in value because of what was revealed on the back of it. For example, art auctioneer Gene Shannon believed the labels on the back of a painting attributed the painting to American painter Mary Louise Fairchild MacMonnies. When the painting was cleaned, a signature, date and inscription became visible, authenticating the painting. The price of the painting was raised to between eight and twelve thousand. In the end the painting sold for three times the high end for a total of thirty-seven thousand five hundred dollars.

There have been more than a few stories of people buying paintings through thrift stores and garage sales for pennies only to find out after some research the painting was in fact worth thousands of dollars.

One can learn a lot by looking at the back of a painting. While it’s instinctual for the eye to spend time viewing the front of a painting, the next time you bring home a painting from a yard sale or flea market, spend a little time looking at the back of the painting. You may just happen upon that one in a million rare painting.

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