Improving your Connoisseurship of Paintings

Knowledge will make you a better collector

While staffing the fine art appraisers table at a charitable appraisal day recently, I had the sad duty to inform more than one hopeful participant that the “Rembrandt” or “Remington” painting they had brought for assessment was actually not a painting, but a print transfer and, as such, was not worth very much at all.   I also had the great privilege of identifying a few pieces as the work of well-known, collectible artists.  The owners of those paintings were often stunned by their values. Both the disappointed and the elated kept asking the same series of questions.  “Well, how do you know it is /is not real?”   “How can I do some research on my own?”   This primer to painting connoisseurship is a great place to start for the beginner and may offer a few tips for the advanced collector.

Original painting or a reproduction?

First, we need to start with separating real paintings from reproductions.   If you find a piece or two in Grandma’s attic that clearly bear Picasso’s or Monet’s signature, we hope that it is an original, but what are the clues that separate the original from the reproduction?  Here are some of them:

  • Is it behind glass?  Although works on paper by important artists can be highly collectible, the largest number of reproductions are also on paper.   Chances are, if your recognizably famous piece is on paper, it’s because it is a printed copy or reproduction of a well-known original in another medium.
  • If it is not behind glass, look at the front surface in raking light.  Raking light is the light that skims across the surface as we turn a piece somewhat to the side.  This view shows us the surface levels of the paint, peaks and valleys.   If the piece appears flat, it is a reproduction (or a drawing).   If the piece appears to have a regular swirled pattern, it is probably also a reproduction.  This swirled surface is created by the application of a clear gel substance that mimics paintbrush strokes.   If the piece appears to have peaks of paint that correspond to the image detail of the painting, it is likely an original painting. Hint: White is a thicker paint and is usually applied with less glazing medium.   The white or light areas of the painting are great for this type of inspection.
  • If you have access to a jeweler’s loupe, examine the surface under magnification.  A reproductive print will have a regular pattern of dots when examined this way, while an original will show the brushstrokes closer.

Left: Note that the lifts in the paint correspond with brushstrokes.  This is a good sign that you have an original painting.Right: This regulated swirl pattern is embossed onto a print transfer to mimic the look of brushstrokes. A reproduction print transfer surface may look like this.

  • Now, look at the support.  Flip the piece over, and inspect the verso, the back surface.  If the piece is on cardboard, it is likely a reproduction. For centuries, artists have produced paintings on wooden panels and on canvases stretched over wooden frames (stretchers).  In the 20th century, companies began to provide “canvas-boards,” canvas that has been glued to a flat art board.  These will be clearly marked with manufacturer’s name and size.   However, if you see plain, brown cardboard, you are likely looking at a mass-produced reproduction.
  • If the piece is on canvas and the stretchers are thin (1 x 2”), light-color wood and the canvas appears to be new, light in color, machine woven, this is a clue that dates it to the last ½ of the 20th century.

    Here is another approach to giving depth to the surface of a print transfer.  This piece has a clear gel medium applied on top of the surface. Note again the regularity of lifts that do not correspond with color changes

    It might be a recently produced oil or acrylic original. Or it might be a print-transfer of a well-known piece.  A print-transfer is a photomechanical reproduction print of an original in another medium (oil or watercolor, for instance) that has been glued another surface.  Prints can be applied to a wide variety of surfaces, including cardboard and canvas.

  • Also check the verso for labels.  Many reproductions bear printed labels or inventory numbers on the verso that give away their history as mass-produced commercial products.    Originals are often signed and titled on the verso.  You might also find dealer’s stamps that tell you who handled the piece in the past.

Identifying Authorship

After you have set aside the reproductions, you can begin to look closely at the paintings for important clues to authorship, age/date and condition, three of the important determinates of value. Authorship or attribution is an important element of value.   Two paintings may look very much alike, but if one is by Picasso and the other is by P. Kasso, their values will be worlds apart.   Sometimes a piece bears a signature.  If so, does the signature on your painting match a known signature?  This can be researched at a good art library.   There are many source-books that have photocopies of the most important artists’ signatures.  One of my favorite sources  for signature matching is a series of books by John Castagno published by Scarecrow Press.   If the signature looks good, look at the overall style of the piece.   Does it match a known style for the artist, known subject matter, known medium?

Keep in mind that not every signed piece is by the hand of a well-known artist.   We all have weekend painters in our families and most of them prominently sign their paintings.  When you find a signed painting, you will need to research the artist’s biography.  Was he/she someone important in the history of art?  What was his/her contribution?  What are they best known for?     This type of research is also best conducted in a good art library.   There are many sources for biographies.  You will have to pinpoint the country of origin for the artist, since biographical sources are grouped in this way.  Benezit’s Dictionary of Artists, for instance, is a fourteen-volume, French language dictionary of European artists from the 16th c. to 1960.  Falk’s Who Was Who in American Art is a wonderful, three-volume set covering American artists up to 1970.

If you find biographical information on the artist and some information on working style, you will be better able to compare your painting to the overall work of the artist.  If, however, you do some research and come up empty-handed, your painting might be the treasured piece by great uncle Ned.   Uncle Ned’s painting might not bring much in the open market, but it could be a wonderful connection to your family’s history.

Determining Age

The date or age of a painting is another important determinate of value.   Of course, it is simple if the piece is dated along with the signature.   Then, you can just make sure that the date is within the known lifetime of the artist.   However, if the piece is not dated, physical examination can help determine a time frame and country of origin.   Is it 19th century British School or 18th C. Italian school, for instance?  This is a little trickier, and may require the input of a professional.  But, here is a list of clues to help train your eye to make this sort of determination on your own:

  • Social/ historical cues –


    • What is the dress/ attire of the people depicted?   If they are wearing powdered white wigs that might lead to a conclusion that a piece was created in the late 18th C., or later in the style of the 18th century.   If the women are wearing mini-skirts, the piece must have been done from 1960 or later.
    • What mechanical objects or other objects are depicted?  What is the means of transportation?  Horse-drawn carriages, trains, automobiles, etc.
    • Are there country-of-origin cues?  flags flying, court dress, well-known buildings or monuments, distinctive landscape details
  • Art Historical Cues—
  • Knowing your “isms” can be very handy.

Having some background in art history is a big plus.  But even without this, you can arrive at some conclusions by comparison of styles on your own.

Old vs NewThe left canvas is "young." Both the wood and the canvas are light in tone. The right painting shows the oxidation that occurs on older canvases. Note also the construction differences between the two.

  • Is the piece done in a traditional, historic style or a loose, interpretive style?
  • What is the color palette?
  • How is the paint applied—thin layers of glazes or thick brushy strokes?
  • Physical cues /Examine the canvas itself—
  • Construction of the stretchers—this can suggest date and country of origin
  • Craquelure on the image—Craquelure is an overall network of fine cracks that tends to develop in oil paintings of a certain age.  It is caused chiefly by the shrinkage of the paint film or varnish over the years.  Craquelure is a sure sign of some age.  Older pieces tend to have a finer, smaller network of craquelure.
  • The wood color of the stretchers or panel –Stretchers and painting panels are left unvarnished and the color naturally darkens over time.   A bright, light wood tone means a newer piece.

Considering Condition

Historical Cues:  Without knowing any of the artists involved, we can tell from the images and the way they are rendered that these pieces are mid-late 20th Century.

Condition is another important element of value.  The condition of a painting is somewhat subjective.  One cannot expect an 18th C. canvas to be in the same condition as a 20th C. canvas.   The 200 year difference would mean that the older piece might have been sent for conservation one or more times.     In an older piece, you should expect to see a re-lined canvas.  Re-lining is the term for adding another back support to a canvas that has grown weak and unstable.    Canvases that have been re-lined properly will have a newer, tighter-weave canvas (or linen) applied to the back of the older support.  The most accepted method of application is with a wax substance.   It will appear somewhat darker than raw canvas and have a waxy feel on the verso when touched lightly.   Re-lining also allows the conservator to lay the paint layer back onto the support and prevent flaking of paint.

Another element that you might see in an older canvas is in-painting.  In-painting is done by a conservator after the piece is re-lined.  The conservator fills bare spots left by flaked paint and attempts to match the surrounding painted areas.  There are several ways to spot in-painting.  Older in-painting may have changed color and no longer match the surrounding paint.   In-painting can sometimes be spotted with an inspection in strong raking light.   Another method is the use of a black light.  Most professionals, dealers and appraisers, own and use a black light.  Interpretation of what is seen under black light examination can be subtle and may require the input of a professional.

When a piece comes to a conservator for restoration, often the paint has already begun to actively flake from the surface.   The amount and location of the in-painting is important to the value of a piece.   If there is a small amount of in-painting and it is located in less “important” areas of the image, the background of a portrait, for instance, this would have little to no effect on the value.  However, if most of the image has been lost and in-painted, this could negatively affect the value of the piece.

Active cupping and flaking of paint are, of course, condition problems and should be taken into account when considering the sale or purchase of a painting.  These can often be successfully addressed by a conservator, however, this will add expense to the purchase.   The tautness of the canvas on the support and the overall strength of the canvas are issues to consider.  If the canvas is bowing, sagging or torn, this needs to be addressed immediately.  Ignoring these problems will lead to loss of the paint surface and degradation of value.

Now that you have learned to differentiate paintings from reproductions and the essential elements of value—authorship, age and condition, your connoisseurship of fine paintings will grow each time you use these skills.   Look, look, look!  Your eye improves as you train it.   Talk to reputable dealers who handle the artists in which you are interested.  Begin to follow the careers of a few artists and compare their work from different time periods.  Buy what you love from reputable sources and you will never be disappointed.

By Brenda Simonson-Mohle, ISA CAPP SA_Logo_72dpi