Assessing Old Master artwork condition. Part II — back of a painting

Essential guide to making right purchasing decisions when buying art online

Marina Viatkina
Nov 28, 2018 · 7 min read

I have briefly touched the issue of physical condition of a painting in my article about investing in Old Master art. However, it is one of the major reasons to opt out of the deal if something is wrong on that side. So, what are the signs to look at to make sure you are not wasting money with a painting even buying art online? I have prepared a special check list for assessing painting condition that you can easily perform by yourself — no special art expertise required.

This is the second part of this guide that is dedicated to visual analysis of painting backsides, In the first part we were talking about a painting surface. Third part is related to frames.

Looking at the backside

  • Stretcher bars. These are the wooden parts that are kind of a support construction for mounting a canvas. They keep its surface stretched. Sometimes you would even see their edge lines on a painting surface. This is actually a good sign of a canvas being rather old (though in most cases it brings the unwanted visual effects with it), as the type of stretchers that do not touch the canvas from inside were only invented in late 19th century (however, having no such traces on canvas surface doesn’t mean the painting is a fake!).
Left — original stretcher bars; right — their edges affected the painting surface from inside.

And sometimes you will see these small little wooden keys inserted in the inner angles of the stretchers (they are used for improving the tension of the fabric when canvas begins to sag).


And the tip here is that these keys were introduced only in the second half of 19th century.

So, if you see a reported 16–17–18 century canvas on stretchers with keys that may indicate two things: it is a fake or later copy or rather the old stretchers were damaged from age and restorers changed them to new ones. The latter case is quite common and often goes with canvas lining.

  • Canvas fabric. The evolution of fabric and its nature were different in various time periods in art history and may tell you a lot about the origin of the painting. One thing that you could notice by just examining the backside photo is whether the painting has been relined or not. This is a quite common restoration practice when the old canvas was attached to a new one with a special glue and iron to actually strengthen the former and this way preserve the image.
1 — original old (at least 18th century) canvas attached to new stretchers; 2 — reinforced edges; 3 — relined canvas, looking spot-on and kind of “new”

This procedure was very popular in 19th century and many paintings faced lining even if there were no serious reasons for that. You may be sure the painting was relined if you could see the traces of the initial canvas, usually visible on the sides of a painting, where the canvas is folded around the stretchers.

Be sure not to mix it with simple edges reinforcement. In this case, the main canvas fabric body is kept as it is. Newer fabric is attached to the edge parts only as a support in the places of it’s wrapping the stretcher bars.

In addition, the relined canvas fabric usually looks like a relatively new one (depending on the actual date of the procedure — be it a century ago or a recent intervention). Whether the old one, say, 17th or 18th century fabric has more coarse texture and darker colour.

Left — old canvas on original stretchers; right — newly relined canvas on brand new stretchers with keys.

Another sign of the genuine canvas could be the nails used for fixing it to the stretcher bars. Old nails used centuries ago are all unstamped and flat on their top. You would really see if they look authentic. They would usually go with original stretchers and, luckily, original canvas fabric — a real treasure if topped with the overall good quality of the painting itself.

Though most of the times the «new-looking» canvas on earlier artworks means lining, there are cases when it indicates a painting being a later copy by a distant follower or even a fake.

All in all it’s quite a heavy restoration measure and you should look closely on other areas of intervention.

  • Damaged surface. We have been also talking about it in the front side examination part. It is sometimes quite difficult to see the quality restored areas and make your own judgement whether they significantly affect the painting. It all becomes pretty visible and evident when you see the backside. You will immediately notice perforations and these little patches in the places of former canvas breaks-ups, for example.
Left — the painting seems faultless on the photo; right — you see much more when looking at its back

With regards to wooden panels watch for their integrity. You will see if there was something wrong with it, like cracking or warping, and don’t mix it up with multi-panel cases or cradling.

  • Varnish stains. This is a very common case for many paintings on the market — these large kind of darker areas on the back of the canvas fabric. These are actually the stains from the varnish (!) that went through all the layers of the glazing, paint and underpainting on the front side and then through the canvas fabric itself to show up at its backside. It can even go through the relined canvas too. Well, this is the sign of a very heavy and sometimes bad restoration. By juxtaposing the locations of those stains you may identify what were the areas that were so excessively varnished (manipulated?).
These wet-looking spots are the varnish went through the surface and canvas fabric

Interestingly, the face areas are sometimes the ones, where there would be less varnish leaked through all the artwork layers. This is due to the white paint pigments used when painting faces — they are more resistant to this kind of transmittance. (See this effect on an image with female sitter above).

  • Labels. Frankly speaking, these are not particularly signs of a condition, however, you need to immediately examine them as soon as you get the painting backside photo. Different labels and inscriptions can give you some hints on attribution and provenance side. Some of them would be supporting seller’s annotation and some of them could contradict to it. Actually, none of the above is a proof of authenticity or fraud unless you do some thorough research and fact-checking. And I highly encourage you to do that.
Various labels and inscriptions could lead to remarkable discoveries

I had a case in my practice when a fine 19th century female portrait I bought was sold as an «English school», as simple as that. I knew it wasn’t, however, that was the only seller’s annotation. Once I received the painting and looked at its back (they didn’t provide the photo initially), I spotted the label on the panel stating that it was produced by Winsor & Newton, famous English art supplier company with a long history. That was the only reason for them to decide it was then painted by an English artist and sell it like that. So, all these labels and inscriptions are a very important evidence for or against this or that assumption one can make about an artwork — always do your own research and don’t ever underestimate any minor detail.

I will continue sharing other important indicators of the painting condition and authenticity with Part III of this story. We are going to talk about frames.

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art collector, researcher and art advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website

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