Identifying The Age Of A Canvas Painting

By Andy Shield

Identifying The Age Of A Canvas Painting

We often handle paintings that are undated so need to use our judgement in determining how old they are. It's not an easy task but there are several clues that help us to form an educated opinion.

For example, if a painting is on canvas, the appearance of the verso (the back) can provide some telling information.

Here are some examples of the backs of canvases that we've had in the collection over the past few years. Most of these were dated, aside from the early works, so the ages are verifiable.

17th-Century Canvases

Most 17th-century paintings are relined. This is a process of attaching a newer canvas on to the back of the older one to preserve it. Both of these examples are relined but still have the original stretcher bars. Note how the bars are very roughly hand-cut and often contain the original hand-wrought nails.

17th century canvas back

17th century canvas back

18th-Century Canvases

Generally, the back of an 18th-century canvas (if unlined) will have darkened due to the effects of time. The stretcher bars tend to be quite rudimentary too.

18th century canvas back

18th century canvas back

18th century canvas back

19th-Century Canvases

Many canvases from the 19th century have been relined, such as this one from 1838. In this example, the stretcher bars are original and quite basic in their construction.

19th century canvas back

Here are some examples of unlined 19th-century canvases.

1849

19th century canvas back

1873

19th century canvas back

1884

19th century canvas back

1885

Note how this is lighter due to its preservation under backing paper.

19th century canvas back

1886

19th century canvas back

1890

19th century canvas back

20th-Century Canvases

1909

20th century canvas back

1916

20th century canvas back

1918

20th century canvas back

1919

20th century canvas back

1921

20th century canvas back

1925

20th century canvas back

1926

20th century canvas back

1927

20th century canvas back

1932

20th century canvas back

20th century canvas back

1933

20th century canvas back

1934

20th century canvas back

1941

20th century canvas back

1944

The following two canvases are both from Germany during the war. Most professional canvases from the 1940s are a little darker but during this period artists were painting on anything they could reasonably use due to a shortage of materials.

20th century canvas back

1945

20th century canvas back

1947

20th century canvas back

1949

20th century canvas back

1967

20th century canvas back

1976

20th century canvas back

Canvas Stamps

Some canvases have a stamp to identify the supplier, which is useful when trying to ascertain its age. Over the years, suppliers updated their stamps regularly so each one has a particular time frame. The National Portrait Gallery keeps a very useful record of how the stamps have changed over time and its database can be found here:

Here are the references for the main British suppliers.

Reeves and Sons
Rowney & Co
Winsor & Newton

Although always bear in mind that an artist could theoretically use an old canvas for a modern painting, so do examine all of the clues before forming an opinion.

Learn more about identifying the age of a painting.