Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Backside

When we speak of paintings it is always the image on the recto (front) that we speak of. It has been painted over a primer so that the paint will stick to the canvas or the knots in the wood will not interrupt the flow of the paint. How often, however, do we speak of the verso (the back) of the canvas or panel. What goes on there?

An exhibition at the Museo del Prado in Madrid has taken on this question. It is called in English “On the Reverse” and will be up until March 3, 2024. I love the idea of going into a gallery where all the paintings have turned their backs on us! Some of the works are installed so that you can see the view the artist intended as well. This exhibition of one hundred works drawn from the Prado’s own collection and 29 other museums covers a span of 400 years.


As an art dealer, I had to look at the backs of pictures to see if the canvas was thin or had already been relined, or whether the stretcher needed reinforcement. There is, of course, so much more to see there. There are hints at, or explicit acknowledgment of, provenance and other surprises. Sometimes there may be a preparatory sketch or an idea for another work. Here is a work from the Prado’s own collection of “The Holy Family” by Bernard van Orley (1487-1541) together with its verso showing the artist’s elaborate inscription.


The Getty Museum shows the versos of 320 paintings in their collection pages online. There they write about what one might find like wax seals of previous, handwritten inscriptions as well as customs stamps if the picture crossed borders.

Here is a picture Diana and her Dog 1717-1720 by Sebastiano Ricci ( 1659-1734) from the show with the labels on the back - information that might be gleaned by the art detective.


A happy surprise is if you might find a preparatory sketch or a picture by a student such as this by Anibale Carracci (1560-1609) and students from the Prado.


The artist Cornelius Norbertus Giesbrechts (circa 1630 – after 1683) made the verso the subject of his painting “Trompe l'oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting” circa 1670, in the National Gallery of Denmark. Was the artist making fun of clients or dealers who would immediately look at the back of a picture presented to them?


On Christie’s website, I found this verso of a still-life by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). Though you may not be able to see it in the illustration the artist has included his address in Cornwall on the bottom, left.


Perhaps the most surprising painting in the Prado exhibition is by Martin Mytens (1648-1736) “Kneeling Nun” circa 1731, from the Stockholm National Museum. Mytens took the theme quite literally completing his seemingly pious frontal image with a rear view. Do note the nun peering in the window on the front whose view you only catch onto when you see the back. The picture belonged to the Swedish Ambassador to Paris who presumably kept the verso of the pious image to enjoy privately or with select friends.



The next time you want to acquire a painting you might want to take a look at the verso as well, but please make your priority looking at the recto and don’t be seduced by the verso.