Wednesday, 29 May 2013



Years ago I was wrapping up my undergraduate studies in art history and history, pondering my next steps. Looking back, I sheepishly admit that at the time a movie The Red Violin helped inspire me to continue towards a career in fine arts. The Red Violin is essentially a cinematic ‘provenance’ of an important 17th century violin. The plot follows the violin from its creation through all its subsequent ownerships and travels, whilst shifting back and forth to the contemporary specialists conducting extensive research upon the piece before it could be offered for commercial sale. I was absolutely captivated by the efforts made to research the entire history of ownership and whereabouts of this important violin, in an attempt to augment its credibility and worth. Most fortunately, such efforts are equally endeavored in the fine arts. Equipped with a new fervour to seriously pursue a career, I knew that I would oftentimes have the pleasure of investigating art. One soon finds that one of the best ways to delve into a historical painting’s past starts first by flipping it over.

A painting’s backside, aka verso, can be devoid of or richly adorned with notations, labels, seals, numbers, stamps and symbols. All of the above can be of great assistance when trying to piece together the: who, what, when, where, and how of a painting. Typically, for historical art the more decorous the backside the more beneficial. For this reason, the backside of a painting can be just as visually and intellectually rewarding as the imagery on the front. Artists’ finest works tend to be exhibited more often, leaving them covered with the labels of exhibitions and authoritative art galleries. Peter Ohler Jr. remembers years ago the awe of flipping over a very fine Lawren Harris panel Isolated Peak to find the backside was completely filled up by various show and gallery labels, with barely a square inch unadorned. He recalls now that the back panel was “like an old suitcase that had travelled around the world.” Everywhere a suitcase had been, it picked up another memento on location.

Some of the many things that can help in researching authenticity and provenance that you might find on the backside of a painting include old gallery and exhibition labels, estate stamps, signatures, hand-written notations, framers and art suppliers stickers, numbers, seals and ex-owners names. Historical Canadian art has many such clues. Old gallery labels for well respected dealers and galleries are desirable additions to the painting’s verso; they reinforce the merit of a work based on the knowledge that informed specialists of a previous era also heralded the work. If authentic, the antiquated labels themselves can physically attest to the genuine vintage of a painting. Some gallery labels from bygone eras in Canadian art history that are esteemed include the Laing Galleries, McCready Galleries, Dominion Gallery, Scott & Sons, Watson Galleries.

Another preferred type of label is that of the public institutions’ or societies’ exhibitions. These typically indicate that the work of art has been included in an organized showcase, implying that the work of art was previously well regarded. In some way or another the work held enough significance to warrant inclusion in an exhibition. Some examples of labels that denote important exhibitions are Canadian National Exhibition Graphis Arts Dept. labels, old Art Gallery of Toronto labels (now the Art Gallery of Ontario), Royal Canadian Academy annual exhibitions, or other museum shows, or shows abroad.

There are all sorts of notations hand-written on the back of paintings: scribbles, symbols, inventory numbers etc. Artists themselves might sign, title, date or make notes on the verso instead of or in addition to the front. Friends, family or experts of an artist have also been widely known to inventory, authenticate or categorize paintings in the artist’s absence or death. When Harris was in New Hampshire, he had Doris Mills inventory all of his work that remained in the Studio Building and various places around Toronto. She marked the back of his panels with a fractioned number, such as 1/26. The first number represents a grouping by subject matter: one for Arctic sketches, two for Algoma sketches, three for houses, four for Lake Superior and so on until group eight. The second number was the order in which she inventoried each group. After Tom Thomson’s untimely death his fellow artists stamped the sketches that remained in the studio with a monogram designed by J.E.H. MacDonald, and he and Lawren Harris noted ‘Not for Sale’ and ‘First Class’ to those they considered the finest.

By: Jill Turner

Have you ever wondered what something on the backside of your Canadian painting means? We invite you to EMAIL US pictures of anything you might be curious about, and we will see of we can investigate your backside.

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