A Hidden Backstory: Decoding Clues Found on the Backs of European Paintings at the High Museum

High Museum of Art
Jan 9 · 2 min read

Learn about the hidden lives of paintings from Catherine Huff, the High’s Curatorial Assistant well-versed in decoding “versos.”

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art

Video Credit: Ashley Wills

Next time you fawn over a painting hung on a gallery wall and soak in every image and bit of meaning visible on its surface, consider that another story lies hidden on the reverse side (known as the “verso,” in museum speak).

For curators and other museum staff members, the verso of an artwork can be a gold mine for gathering clues about a painting’s past or provenance. It was a decade ago now, but I still remember the first time I saw the verso of an older European painting.

Yellowed paper taped to the back of a Matisse painting shows that it was once displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Yellowed paper taped to the back of a Matisse painting shows that it was once displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Lifting the work from its crate freshly shipped from Germany, I felt privileged to witness the traces of history visible on the back. This part of the artwork was unseen by most, save a select group of curators, gallerists, art handlers, and the artist himself. As I laid eyes upon the yellowed, curling edges of old tags and official seals, my idea of the artwork transformed from that of a disembodied image to a real object that has survived through time, changed hands, and travelled across oceans.

In the video above, you’ll hear from Catherine Huff, Curatorial Assistant of American and European Art at the High, and get a glimpse of the stories told by the stamps, seals, and inscriptions of love found on the versos of works in the High’s new Shaheen Collection of European artworks.

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

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