Victorian Oil Paintings from EuropeBy ACRN editor, Mark Chervenka
Victorian Oil Paintings from Europe?
They're not old; they're not paintings; they're not from Europe
Imitation oil paintings with misleading paper labels on period-looking frames have been fooling lots of buyers recently. The paper labels prominently feature London, Amsterdam, Paris and other European cities. Thick gold finished frames are heavy and highly decorated. The mostly Victorian subjects appear to be painted in thick oils applied in a heavy texture.
The truth is that these pieces are not paintings at all but specially altered paper prints made on modern printing presses. They don't come from Europe but from reproduction wholesalers who have them manufactured in Indonesia. The paper labels? A fantasy creation applied to the frames to help convince the buyer of the age and "quality."
The new pieces are available in a wide variety of subjects. Most are in a 19th century English style with game scenes, domestic animals (pigs, cows, horses), landscapes, military portraits and persons on horseback. Framed size averages about 14" X 12" with some larger and smaller. The 14" size wholesale for under $10; larger sizes, $20-$40. They are typically retailed at $75-$200 but unsuspecting bidders have paid as high as $300-$450 at auction. This article will point out the ways you can detect these impostors by examining the image and frame construction.
Examining the Suspects
These reproductions of oil paintings are really a combination of two separate items. First, there's the image; second, the frame around it. Although the examples shown in this article are together, you may find the frame and images separated once out on the market. It's common to find a new image placed in an old frame or a new frame by itself offered as old. Each piece, frame and image, should be examined thoroughly to determine authenticity. We'll begin our discussion with the frame, then cover the image.
The first clue that something isn't right is the paper covering on the back (Figs. 4 & 5). Oil paintings on canvas or on board—new or old—are very rarely if ever backed with paper. Yet all of the reproductions with the misleading paper labels have a thick paper backing applied over the entire back side. The paper on our examples was green (like a bronze patina) with artificially created brown-edged spots and spatters suggesting age and wear.
All the labels on our samples were identical. They measure 3 3/4" wide by 2 3/4" high and are printed in black ink on a brown background. The brown surface, of course, is meant to suggest paper that has turned dark with age. But in this case the brown surface is printed with brown ink. How can you tell? You can see white paper through scuffs in the brown surface and along the edges of the labels (see lower edge of label in Fig. 2). Old paper darkened with age is colored entirely through the body of the paper, not just the surface1.
Common sense should warn you something is not quite right. The similarity in size, background color and border design of the labels is totally illogical. These labels are supposedly from two different businesses in widely separated cities, London, England and Amsterdam, Holland. How is it that they and all the other labels are identical in appearance?
This is not to say that old period frames and paintings do not have labels; many do. Frame makers' labels on typical Victorian period oil paintings are much different. Most importantly, original frame makers' names are not applied to paper backings because period pieces do not have paper backings. The majority of makers' names, when marked, are applied directly to the unfinished or partially finished back side of the frame. They can either be stamped or stenciled in ink or paint or applied with a small paper or cardboard label. Some specially designed frames even carry the carved initials of the maker. The vast majority of old marks, however, are rarely more than the width of the piece of frame to which they are applied. Paper labels on the reproductions are very large, overlapping the frame or placed in the center of the back (Fig. 4).
Another obvious feature of the new frames is their poor quality. Virtually all period painted frames with highly raised designs are made of molded plaster applied over a wood support. White plaster shows through any chips or spots of wear (Fig. 9). Not so with the reproductions. The new frames are molded from a dark resin, not plaster. Any chips or scratches in the surface finish reveal a dark brown/black surface below (Fig. 8).
Overall, these new frames are very crudely made with rough finishes. Splinters were obvious in the "carving" (Fig. 10) and even along straight sections of framing. Bristles from brushes, human hair, dirt and debris were commonly found embedded in the painted surface and glued joints (Fig. 11). Unless damaged or restored with the notorious gold spray paint, most original period frames—even inexpensive versions—have smooth finished surfaces and debris-free paint.
One last minor point about the new frames. All the frames come from the wholesalers with string on the back for hanging. The string, like the paper, is artificially aged. Any period frame, even cheap ones, would normally have wire, not string. Nothing dramatic, but one more clue to use in your evaluation.
About ten of these "paintings" showed up recently at a Midwest auction. The auction company repeatedly told the crowd the items were new but there was still a lot of interest. After all, the heavy texture of the paint had to mean the pieces were reasonably well done, right? Even a new oil painting could be a good investment if the price was low.
No one in the crowd noticed that these pieces were not paintings at all but paper prints mass produced on a modern color printing press. A heavy three dimensional glaze was applied over the paper to give the illusion of a heavy texture (Fig. 12). Taking a 10X loupe and looking through the glaze, however, you see the dot structure produced by modern color printing (Fig. 13).
Obvious? Yes, if you look at the "paintings" with your loupe. But the heavy texture is so convincing that no one at the auction ever suspected the pieces were not painted. Despite being told the pieces were new, everybody assumed they were new paintings. No one suspected the images were new prints.
The other telltale sign that the surface of the images is not right is the bright fluorescence under long wave black light. The heavy textured varnish is clear under visible (room) lighting but glows white all over under black light.
The pieces discusses in this article are just one class of reproduction "paintings"; there are many others2. When evaluating a suspected piece, be sure to check both the frame and the image. The decorative surfaces of old period frames are made primarily of plaster and show white under their surface finish; many new frames are molded resin which usually shows dark brown/black.
It would be highly unusual for the back of a period oil painting to be covered in paper. Don't assume an image is painted just because the surface of the image is textured. Look at every image with a 10X loupe. With the exception of checking for a dot pattern in the image, there is no one single test that will detect all the new images and frames. Use several tests before making a judgement on age.
In addition to tests you should perform, there are several you should not. For example, never poke at an image's surface with your finger to see if it is canvas. You could easily push your finger through a genuinely old fragile canvas. Besides, many period paintings are on board so an image does not have to be on canvas to be old or worthwhile. Instead of stabbing at it with your index finger, ask the seller to remove the piece from the wall so you can view the back.
Never intentionally chip or cut into a frame's surface to see what material is under the surface finish (white plaster or dark resin). Virtually all period frames have some normal wear where the plaster shows through. Almost all the new frames are so crude the paint does not cover the entire surface and the dark resin shows through in a number of places.
The best defense is to assume nothing and carefully make a full examination of the frame and image. Become familiar with how period frames and canvas images were made and assembled.
1. Darkened paper is not itself a guarantee of age. New paper can be darkened throughout its body by artificially applied stains and chemicals.
2. Computer driven digital printers can produce high quality images directly on canvas. These images are called "canvas prints" in the trade and are becoming more common. Such pieces frequently include hand brushed areas of texture to simulate a real painting.