Blog by Dr. Lori

How to Date an Antique Portrait

by Dr. Lori Verderame
How to Date an Antique Portrait

Many people have family portraits that have been handed down through the ages, some valuable portraits can even be found in antiques shops from a cleaned out estate. It is a good idea to hang them somewhere safe and to make arrangements to keep these heirlooms in the family. Here are three expert tips from me, Dr. Lori Verderame who holds the Ph.D. in art history for accurately dating an antique portrait.

1. The Eyes Have It

You’ve heard people say that they were creeped out by a portrait painting because the eyes were following them around the room. Actually, in art history, it is common for the eyes of a portrait to be the most engaging part of a portrait painting. Much attention is given to the painting of the sitter’s eyes because the more realistic the eyes are, the more it seems as if they are active or following the viewer.

Historically, in order for a portrait painter to be paid a high rate for a painting, he had to achieve family likeness in his painting. The finished painting would be compared to the faces of family members to determine how good the painting turned out. Often times, capturing family likeness is measured by the look of the sitter’s eyes.

For painters working in the 18th and 19th Centuries, they would charge more money for a portrait if he painted the sitter’s hands in a realistic manner. It is well documented that including the sitter’s hands in a painting would increase the price of the painting. So if your family portrait or antique find has well painted hands, it could be more valuable. Watch me show you how to identify a painting as American by looking at its back.

2. Don’t Rely on Costumes

Portrait painting

Costumes don’t tell the entire story of a painting nor do they reveal the truth about a portrait painting’s sitter. Just because someone is depicted in a painting dressed in an antique or vintage costume that does not mean that the painting is from the same time period as the costume. Today, I could put on an outfit from the 1980s and have someone paint a portrait of me wearing that outfit. That doesn’t make the painting from the 1980s. Everyone mistakenly believes these flawed approaches. Another one involves signatures. Read why a portrait could still be valuable with no signature.

Old time costumes could be painted on more contemporary paintings. Costume styles can be popular in one part of the world and have already considered out of style or have fallen out of favor in another part of the world. And, regional costumes can be depicted in paintings from outside of the area. It is a common researching wrong people make all the time. If you incorrectly identify the painting, you will incorrectly value it.

3. Restoration is Common

Restored, in-painted, and patched oil on canvas portraits are the norm and not the exception. If you see evidence of any type of restoration, that will tell you something about where the portrait has been stored or where the portrait has been displayed over the years.

Forget the black light and just take a good, long, close look at the portrait painting and notice any unusual changes. Restoration processes can tell you a great deal about the background of a portrait and how it has been cared for. It is typical for portraits to show damage around the perimeter edge near the frame and in the center of the portrait sitter’s transition from the chin to the neck where many artists spend a good amount of time and effort applying paint to realistically show the area beneath the chin which is difficult to master in portrait painting. Watch me show you how to determine the painting's age by looking at its back.

There is so much to know about portrait paintings and their artists. I didn't even discuss how to identify a pair of portraits or how portrait artists made a living. If you would like another post on these topics, please let me know. I can also identify and value your painting if you send photos for my review.

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