How to fill gaps in information

, c.1500–1510, oil & tempera on oak panel by Cornelis Engebrechtsz (1468-1527)

The back of a painting, 'Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist' by Cornelis Engebrechtsz (1468–1527)

Some information can be obtained by looking at the front of the painting. However, most experienced researchers begin by looking at the back, where you can find signatures and inscriptions, old auction and exhibition labels, evidence of the materials, of conservation and repair, all of which can be invaluable to understanding the painting’s history and significance.

  • Unique identity number. If the painting is not marked with its unique identity number and is not easily recognised, the only way to identify it may be to carry out a stock check and match it up with a missing item. Giving a new identity number to an already accessioned or registered item is a recipe for confusion in the future, unless you have a distinctive temporary numbering system. Make sure you allocate a new number to a new acquisition as soon as it arrives.
  • Materials. Few non-professionals will be able to distinguish between oil paint, acrylic and tempera, the three main media for works included on Art UK. Egg tempera was used for most painting before 1500, being replaced by oil paint in the Netherlands in the 1400s and in Italy after about 1500. The supports for paintings can range from wooden panels (usual until the 1500s in Italy and the 1600s in Northern Europe), copper, marble or slate and the most common, stretched canvas. Most works made between 1500 and 1950 will be oil paintings but one of the features of 20th-century art is the combined use of many materials, including collage and readymade elements, in one work. From the 1950s many artists used acrylic paint, dilutable with water and usable as a thick textured paint like oil or as a thin and transparent wash like watercolour. A professional conservator will be able to advise on doubtful cases (for more details see our pages on painting conservation).
  • Title. The ideal title for a painting is that given to it by the artist. This may appear in an artist’s inscription on the back of the painting, on an artist’s label, or in the catalogue of an exhibition in which the artist exhibited the work. Some artists didn’t title their work, some titles may change or be lost with time or they may differ according to language, e.g. Mona Lisa, Monna Lisa, La Gioconda, La Joconde, Portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, etc. Titles given on frames can be suspect: they can be out of date, or even from a different picture. A new title should help to identify the painting and will usually correspond to its subject. It then becomes important to know the subject of the painting as accurately as possible.
  • Production date. Researching a painting’s production date is closely related to researching its attribution. Apart from any documentary evidence, the evidence of authorship, style and materials will all aid the dating of a painting. See Artist, below.
  • Subject. Researching the subject of a painting can be difficult but very rewarding.
    • Portraits. The identity of the sitter in a portrait may be recorded in an old label or description on the back of the painting. But, like any inscriptions and labels, these should be treated sceptically: optimistic but unproven identifications are very common. Other documentary evidence, e.g. material relating to provenance and the artist’s correspondence, etc., will help. If reliable documentary evidence is lacking, then compare the portrait with others. The National Portrait Gallery website is a good place to start for British portraits; for local figures, the local library or county record office. A web search may produce useful results, but often perpetuates misidentifications and of course can bring up many different people with the same name. See:
    • Topography. Identifying places depicted in paintings is more difficult. Like portraits, old labels and inscriptions and documentary evidence can be helpful. Local knowledge is especially useful so, if you think you have identified the general area, a museum, library or archive in that area may be able to provide more information. Remember that many landscapes are not a precise depiction of a specific place. They can be generalised evocations of a region or a landscape experience, be an entirely invented 'ideal' or 'classical' landscape, or combine several topographical features and buildings from different times and places in one composition.
    • Mythology, literature and religion. A large proportion of paintings dating from before 1900 depict events and figures from classical mythology, the Bible, the lives of saints or literature. Today, most of these subjects are not as well known. Fortunately many characters and saints are regularly accompanied by objects or 'attributes' that can be a clue as to their identity. James Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art is a very useful reference book of traditional subjects in Western art.
    • Historical Subjects. Historical events have long been depicted by artists, with varying degrees of accuracy. These include great battles, incidents in the lives of heroes and villains and natural disasters. When trying to identify a battle, for example, details of flags, naval vessels, uniforms and decorations may provide clues. In this instance, you may need to consult a specialist in a maritime, regimental or local history museum.

      Used with care,, Google Images and Google Street View can also help identify subjects.
  • Artist(s) – i.e. attribution. Identifying the artist, or even the region or school from which a painting comes, can be a hard, long and often irresolvable task. From earliest times artists made copies of their own and others' work, students and pupils made copies as part of their artistic training, and professional copyists made replicas of famous paintings for tourists. Alongside these legitimate copies, you may come across forgeries deliberately produced to deceive, usually for profit. Forgeries may be copies of known paintings or works in the style of well-known artists. One way art historians distinguish between originals and copies is to look for ‘pentimenti’ – signs of alterations to the composition or a detail that show the artist has changed his or her mind while painting the picture. Such changes are not usually found in copies.

Someone with extensive experience of examining paintings closely at first hand will draw on their knowledge and visual memory when making an attribution. They will consider the evidence in the painting itself, including the materials used by the artist, the composition, the colour range or ‘palette’, the quality of light and shade and even the nature of the brushstrokes.   

However, if you are not an expert, there are some questions you can ask yourself that can help you start to work towards an attribution. First, what do you know about the painting’s history? Where did it come from, what records exist about previous owners and their property, e.g. household inventories, wills, auction records? What information came with the painting, in the form of inscriptions and labels on the back of it, or from the donor? Although old information is often not accurate, it can point you in the right general direction.

Secondly, what do you know about the painting as a physical object? What is it made from, both the medium and the type of wood or canvas it is painted on? What type of stretcher is used? These can help date the painting and suggest its geographical origin.

Thirdly, what is the style? Here, the emphasis is on making comparisons with other paintings of the same subject and painted in the same style. A Google Image search for Van Dyck, for example, brings up hundreds of examples of his work and you can instantly get a flavour of his style, as opposed to say his contemporary William Dobson. Or search for Saint Sebastian and see hundreds of depictions of the arrow-pierced saint by Renaissance artists to compare with yours. The Art UK website will be especially useful for British artists and subjects. The Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute holds approximately two million reproductions of works by 70,000 artists. For other online resources see our section on reference sources and links.

  • Acquisition method. As mentioned above, recording how and when the painting was acquired by the museum is a priority, for historical and legal reasons. If information is unknown, your institution’s records, committee minutes, annual reports, correspondence, press-cutting files, etc., should be searched to find any mention of the acquisition.
  • Provenance and exhibition history. Researching and recording the history of a painting is crucial to establishing its authenticity and can help identify its attribution and subject. Labels, inscriptions and wax seals on the back of a painting can be clues to previous ownership, previous exhibitions, auction sales etc. Many 19th- and early 20th-century paintings in public collections were exhibited at annual exhibitions held by the Royal Academy and other London and regional institutions and art clubs (see reference sources and links for more details). These catalogues can help to attribute, date and title paintings. Temporary exhibition catalogues will often include the names of lenders. Christie’s are well known for painting, and later stencilling, a unique reference number on the back of all paintings they offer for sale. This number can be used to identify the auction in which a painting appeared. Auction catalogues often give the name of the seller, and there are sometimes annotated copies with the names of purchasers and sale prices written in. See Douglas Condon-Martin, ‘Sir Edward Manton’s Glebe: Completing the Provenance of Constable’s Glebe Farm Sketch c.1830’, Tate Papers, Issue 9, 1 April 2008 ( for an example of how all this information can be used.
  • Frame. The history of framing is a specialised area in itself, closely related to the history of furniture and interior design. Some of the most famous architects and furniture designers, such as William Kent and Thomas Chippendale, designed picture frames. Frame styles vary with time, geography and fashion. Most paintings have been reframed over time, due to damage and change of fashion, but it is now conventional to frame in a style appropriate to the period and school of the painting. Paintings in their original frames are especially valued. The National Portrait Gallery has made a special study of picture frames. See for further information and links.