Peeking around the Back Side

The Art Doctor

In her role as the Art Doctor, Nina Roth-Wells get to know many of the paintings in the Colby College Museum of Art intimately, making examinations much like a medical doctor would. In this installment she shares some of the details of her exams, such as what can be found on the back sides of some of the paintings in the collection.

A look at the reverse of a painting can reveal a lot about its structure and stability; it’s a bit like observing the foundation of a house. The reverse of a painting can also provide insight into the processes the artist used in its making.

The majority of traditional Western paintings are on linen canvas that has been attached to a wooden stretcher as you can on the reverse of Ezra Ames’s Portrait of Catherine Margaret (Kitty) James (Figure 1). Interestingly, the reverse of this painting has never been lined (that is, attached to a reinforcing canvas), which is rare for a painting from 1822. Even more interesting, there are sketches of eyes on the reverse.

Figure 1: Reverse of Portrait of Catherine Margaret (Kitty) James (1963.014) (left) with detail (right)

The joinery in the corners of the strainer, the wooden structure beneath the canvas, also reveals much about the history of this early nineteenth-century painting. Strainers differ from stretchers in that the corners are fixed and can’t be expanded to increase the tension of the canvas  As you can see, the lap join corner (Figure 2), made by halving each piece and fitting them together, is nailed together with hand-forged nails. These facts indicate that this is the original strainer, as mitered corners and machine-made nails do not appear on the scene until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Figure 2 (left): Lap join corner with hand-forged nails from Catherine James. Figure 3 (right): A later mitered corner.

Examining the reverse of other paintings in the recent exhibition A Usable Past: American Folk Art at the Colby College Museum of Art yielded other fascinating discoveries. For example, many paintings, including Augustus Fuller’s Portrait of a Man, had signatures on the reverse. The treatment of this painting in particular was complicated, as the aged linen support was very fragile and the painting needed to be lined. Since preserving the visibility of the inscription was important, I chose a translucent silk-screen material for the lining.

Figures 4 and 5: Augustus Fuller’s Portrait of a Man (1956.062) before and after lining.

Another intriguing discovery is that artists haven’t always used traditional linen canvas for their support and, in fact, have turned to a variety of other materials. If you look closely at the reverse of Old Homestead At Sudbury, Massachusetts, you can see that not only does this canvas have a great inscription, but the material is striped. The painting was actually made on mattress ticking.

Figures 6 and 7: Recto and verso of Artist Unknown, Old Homestead At Sudbury, Massachusetts, c. 1840. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ellerton M. Jetté, 1956.062
Detail of Figure 7 demonstrating the mattress ticking.

Although canvas is the most prevalent support, some artists prefer to paint on wooden panels. Sometimes the panels have wonderful inscriptions. Similar to paintings on canvas that sometimes need linings, panel paintings also degrade with time. Splits in panels can be mended with a wooden splint. Warped wooden supports can be thinned, flattened, and then reinforced with an elaborate wooden structure called a cradle (Figures 8 and 9).

Figures 8 and 9: Recto and verso of Maurice Utrillo, Une Rue Au Vesinet. Oil on canvas. Gift of Miss Adeline F. and Miss Caroline R. Wing, 154.001. The verso reveals the cradle made to reinforce the original wooden support.

Next time you find yourself at a museum or gallery, studying paintings, you can think to yourself, “I know what you look like on the back side!”