What You Can Find on the Back of a Painting

Tratto da Getty News & Stories,  scritto da  Nicole Block  Nov 18, 2021

The back of a painting (which is also called the verso) can be a passport for a work of art, showing where it has been during its life.

Getty recently uploaded the versos of more than 320 paintings to our online collections pages. Even if we can’t deduce what a mark means now, by sharing it publicly we hope someone will recognize it and we can better understand the painting’s history.

As a curatorial assistant in the paintings department, I’ve been cataloging and documenting the backs of paintings for the past couple of years. I’ve noted the size, color, shape, and position of the marks on the back, transcribed any text as best I could, and then tried to figure out what it all meant. Much of the time, handwriting is hard to read, or a label is too faded or ripped to make out a crucial detail, or there are just not enough context clues to understand what a mark means.

However, sometimes something new reveals itself. One of my favorite discoveries was finding a connection between Sebastiano Ricci’s Diana and Her Dog and the William Hogarth pair Before and After. These paintings depict Diana, goddess of the hunt, and a satirical narrative of a sexual encounter, but the backs of these paintings tell another story about where they have been.

Diana and Her Dog, 1717–1720, Sebastiano Ricci. Oil on canvas, 29 1/8 x 21 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 78.PA.230

Label from verso of Sebastiano Ricci’s Diana and Her Dog

I had discovered an unknown connection between these paintings, learned when exactly the gallery bought and sold them, and helped the gallery discover a label they hadn’t previously known about! These small details help piece together the lives these paintings had before they ended up in the museum. We can imagine these artworks for sale in the dealer’s London gallery in the 1930s, then in Laurin’s villa full of books and art in Stockholm throughout World War II, and finally in J. Paul Getty’s large Tudor manor in the English countryside and his museum that was formed just a couple miles from the beach in Malibu.

These histories contained in an object give us a snapshot of the past. We’re able to learn more about which subjects and artists were popular, who was collecting and selling art, and how viewers interpreted art. Knowing who owned a painting and how they displayed it can also give us insight into who might have seen it and been influenced or inspired by it. By tracing an object as it passed between hands from its maker up until the present, we can see how it was valued over time and how it came to be known to us today. A reason why many artworks are part of the art historical canon and celebrated now is because they were once owned or appreciated by influential people like kings and nobility, who added to their status back then and still today.