How to Identify Reverse Foil Artwork

Written by charong chow
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How to Identify Reverse Foil Artwork
Observe the painted side of the reverse-glass painting to identify a real antique. ( Images)

Reverse foil artwork is also known as reverse-glass painting, where artists painted on the back of glass for mostly decorative objects. According to the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, reverse-glass painting was popular in America in the late 1700s to the early 1800s, though the technique was used in Europe since the thirteenth century. The subject matter of the paintings ranged from cupids to geometric designs, and the paintings were often incorporated into furniture such as sideboards and mirrors. To identify antique reverse foil artwork, examine the glass for the materials that were used during the height of its popularity.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Magnifying glass
  • Energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry
  • Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy

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  1. 1

    Study the front and back of the artwork with a magnifying glass to be sure that the painting is on the back. Reverse-glass painting should painted, inlaid or gilded from the reverse side. The painting was often translucent with silver and gold leaf. Be sure your artwork is not etched glass from the front side.

  2. 2

    Observe the actual painting on the artwork. Reverse-glass paintings were often inexpensive decorative objects that appealed to a mass audience. The subject matter often used flowers, imitation stained glass, historical figures, important events, such as the American Revolution, and landscapes. Check if your artwork features this type of subject matter.

  3. 3

    Examine where the reverse foil artwork is. Most reverse-glass paintings adorned furniture, mirror, frames and clocks. If your artwork is on its own in a frame, it may not be an antique unless it was taken off from a larger piece of furniture or mirror.

  4. 4

    Look for separation of the layers of paint and gilding. This is a common problem according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once the binding materials on the glass start to deteriorate. Paint layers do not bind well with smooth surfaces, and glass is a smooth surface. Detached paint layers look lighter and voids occur between the glass and the paint. Paint flakes are also a sign of layers separating.

  5. 5

    Analyse the artwork with an energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry, which museums or art conservators would have. It would analyse the composition of the paint and glass. For example, a reverse-glass painting at the Metropolitan Museum was analysed to have a two to one ratio of potassium to calcium with traces of sodium, magnesium and aluminium, which pointed its origin to an American glass manufacturer in Maryland from the 1700s.

  6. 6

    Test the paint sample with a Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy which is used by museums and art conservators. This examines the type of paints and other chemicals used on the artwork. For example, the Metropolitan Museum found on the same reverse-glass painting linseed oil as the paint medium, which was often used in the late 1700s to early 1800s on reverse-foil artwork.

Tips and warnings

  • Ask the art dealer questions about the background to the artwork you think may be a reverse-foil artwork. Find out its history and previous owners.
  • If the condition is too good or if the price is extremely low, it may be a new reproduction.
  • Check for glass disease, which will cause the glass to disintegrate. White precipitate on the glass surface is a sign for this problem.

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