Tips from the Back of your Painting

Dr. Lori shows you how identify age and origin from the back of a painting.

by Dr. Lori Verderame

When it comes to evaluating paintings, you definitely need an expert. Paintings are original works of art and require special skills to authenticate them and to value them.

Some of the most important and revealing information about paintings is not visible from the front. Of course, the composition of the painting, artist’s signature, and brushwork style are only part of the story of assessing value of a work of art.

Much of the most important information about a painting is hiding in the back of the painting. That’s right, not all of the answers about a painting are on the front. Sometimes when you rely on a signature, you are just looking at a forgery because it is easy and commonplace to have a forged signature. So, don’t be fooled.

Learn about the parts of a painting and learn what to look for from me, the leading authority on art and antiques.

Back of a painting reveals valuable info

There are a few basic parts of a painting: the canvas, the pigment (or paint), the stretcher, the keys. The parts of a painting will help you identify the work correctly and learn if you have something valuable or not. Watch me show you how to identify a $7,500 painting bought at auction for only $75 using these tips.

First of all, do not confuse a stretcher with a frame. Both of them protect the canvas but the stretcher protects from the back and the frame protects from the front. The frame is a work of art in and of itself whereas a stretcher is a part of a painting. Paintings may not have frames on the front but paintings on canvas almost always have stretchers on the back.

Nails or Staples

A stretcher is the group of four wooden bars that are placed together in the form of a square or a rectangle. A stretcher is found on the backside of a painting on canvas. The canvas is wrapped around the stretcher bars so the canvas is taunt. The way that the canvas is secured to the stretcher will reveal information about the age of the canvas. If you have a painting that is attached to a stretcher with nails, then you probably have a canvas that dates to circa 1940 or earlier. It was a common method for artists to attach paintings to stretchers using nails on all four sides of a painting during the 1800s and into the early 1900s.

If you have a painting on canvas that is attached to its stretcher with staples, then you have a painting—99 times out of 100—that was stretched sometime after 1940. Staples are used to attach the canvas to the wooden stretcher bars on all four sides using a traditional staple gun.

Know your stretcher

There are different types of stretchers used. There are X, H, and mitered stretchers. X stretchers look like the letter X, H stretchers look like the letter H, and mitered stretchers are put together at the corner on an angle. X and H stretchers are commonly made of dark colored woods and found on 18th and 19th Century European paintings whereas stretchers made of a soft, light colored wood with mitered corners are more typically found on American paintings of the 1900s or later period works.

Keys are the small wooden shims that will be wedged between stretcher bars to keep a canvas taunt or tight. They are helpful in keeping an oil on canvas painting in good condition. Stretcher construction tips will help you to identify the date of painting and learn its value.

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