Han van Meegeren

From the Encyclopedia of Hoaxes, edited by Gordon Stein (Detroit: Gale Research, 1993).

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com



The most notorious and celebrated forger of the twentieth century, Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), was born in the Dutch town of Deventer. He was fascinated by drawing as a child, and pursued it despite his father’s disapproval, sometimes spending all his pocket money on art supplies. In high school he was able finally to receive professional instruction, and went on to study architecture, according to his father’s wishes. In 1911 he married Anna de Voogt. His artistic talents were recognized when he soon after won first prize and a gold medal from the General Sciences Section of the Delft Institute of Technology for a drawing of a church interior. He agreed to sell this drawing, but was discovered by his wife making a copy of it to sell as the original. She dissuaded him from carrying out this small swindle, but the incident is the first evidence of an interest in faking, even if in this case the artist was merely forging his own prize-winning work.

Van Meegeren moved with his wife to The Hague where he received his degree in art in 1914. For the next ten years he was able to sell work and to support himself by giving drawing lessons. He held exhibitions in 1916 and 1922 which were fairly well received. In 1923 he divorced Anna and took up with Johanna Oerlemans, the estranged wife of the art critic Karl de Boer. They were married in 1929.

The artistic style of van Meegeren was then as later essentially conservative: misty interiors of old churches, Dutch scenes, religious paintings, sentimental portraits, and paintings in the genre of mystical Symbolism. One animal drawing, Queen Juliana’s Deer, attained great popularity on calendars and postcards. His political outlook was Catholic, anti-Semitic, and conservative to the point of fascism. He was opposed to all modernist tendencies in art. Though van Meegeren was not unsuccessful as an artist, critics were in the 1920s increasingly negative and condescending about his work while he in turn became bitter with regard to critics and the promoters of modern art, whom he called a “slimy little group of woman-haters and negro-lovers.”

By 1923, van Meegeren had already produced his first forgery, a Laughing Cavalier presented as the work of Frans Hals. This was authenticated by an expert and fetched a good price at auction, but was detected as a forgery some months later. Van Meegeren’s involvement went undiscovered. From this episode van Meegeren learned lessons that helped him succeed in his first Vermeer forgery, Lady and Gentleman at the Spinet, which was produced in 1932 and praised by the eminent art historian, Prof. Abraham Bredius, as a very fine Vermeer. The same year he left Holland and went with his wife to live in southern France.

For the next four years he supported himself by painting portraits. All the while he was, however, studying formulae for seventeenth-century paints and experimenting with ways to produce a pigment surface which had both the hardness of old paint and at the same time displayed craquelure, the system of cracking normally found on the surface of old paintings. Using volatile flower oils, he managed to perfect a technique he employed in his greatest Vermeer forgery, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaeus, which he painted in 1936-37.

The 1932 Vermeer forgery had been a pastiche of elements from known authentic works, but van Meegeren’s strategy for this forgery was much more subtle. Though most extant Vermeers were small paintings of interior domestic scenes, in some of his early work Vermeer had produced large religious paintings. Prof. Bredius had theorized in print that other large early Vermeers on religious themes might yet turn up. Accordingly, van Meegeren painted a work which exactly fulfilled Bredius’s scholarly hypothesis. Other art historians had also suggested that Vermeer had early in his life traveled in Italy, and on this count too the Emmaeus canvas, which showed possible influence of Carravagio, seemed to confirm an academic conjecture.

Van Meegeren invented a story about a destitute Italian family which had owned the painting for generations and which did not want its identity revealed; he then set out to dispose of it through the Dutch dealer G.A. Boon. When the painting was presented to Bredius, he fell for it completely, publishing news of this “wonderful moment in the life of an art lover” in 1937 in the Burlington Magazine. He wrote, “we have here a — I am inclined to say — the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft...quite different from his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer....In no other picture by the great Master of Delft do we find such sentiment, such a profound understanding of the Bible story — a sentiment so nobly human expressed through the medium of the highest art.”

Though doubts about the painting persisted in some quarters (the agent of the New York dealer Duveen Bros. called it a “rotten fake”), with the authentication of Bredius, the painting was sold by Boon to the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam for an astonishing sum equivalent to approximately two million 1992 U.S. dollars. Van Meegeren received about two-thirds of this amount. From this point Van Meegeren, who now had much more money than ever before in his life, began heavily to use alcohol and drugs, becoming a morphine addict. Though he had originally entertained the idea of confessing his forgery in order to humiliate the critics who had lauded it, he decided to forge yet another Vermeer, and then yet another through the war years.

Unfortunately for van Meegeren’s career as a forger, he was arrested only days after the end of the Second World War on the serious criminal charge of having sold a Dutch National Treasure to the enemy: one of his fake Vermeers, The Adultress, had ended up in the personal art collection of the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. In order to save himself from serving a long sentence for collaboration with the Nazis, he pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of forgery. At first his claim to have forged not only Emmaeus and The Adultress, but also four other “authentic” Vermeers, was met with disbelief. A scientific commission was set up, however, and van Meegeren himself proposed that he paint a new Vermeer while in jail awaiting trial. The resulting painting, The Young Christ Teaching in the Temple, was clearly by the same hand as all the other fakes.

His trial received international coverage. Van Meegeren portrayed himself as a man who loved only to paint and whose career had been ruined by malicious critics. Indeed, having made fools of so many eminent scholars and curators, he became a sort of folk hero. The court treated him leniently, sentencing him to the minimum sentence of one year in prison on November 12, 1947. But van Meegeren’s debauched life, coupled with a heart condition, caught up with him and he suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on December 29th.

When we look today at the van Meegeren forgeries, it seems almost impossible to imagine that they were mistaken for Vermeers. The faces have a quality suggestive of photography. The sentimental eyes and awkward anatomy are more reminiscent of German expressionist works of the 1920s and 30s than they are of the age of Vermeer. In the Emmaeus painting, there is even a resemblance of one of the faces to Greta Garbo. Yet these very characteristics that stamp them to our eyes as so obviously works of their time, rather than Vermeer’s, also made them immediately appealing to the eyes of the 30s.

The first major forgery, Emmaeus, was also, for all of its faults, closer to Vermeer than any of the others. Once it was firmly ensconced in the body of Vermeer’s work, with its style accepted as authentically Vermeer’s, the next forgery could contain less Vermeer and more van Meegeren, and so on incrementally. The last of the fakes, The Adultress, is very far from Vermeer, but once scholarship had accepted its predecessors, it was but a small step to validate it as well.

The van Meegeren case, with its elements of vanity, gullibility, artistic skill and curatorial detection, greed, malice, and even fun, perfectly captured problems which haunt the art world to this day. Han van Meegeren may not have been a great artist, but he made people think much harder about what they value in art and why.

 

Bredius, Abraham, “A New Vermeer,” Burlington Magazine 71 (November 1937), pp. 210-211; “An Unpublished Vermeer,” Burlington Magazine 61 (October 1932), p. 145.

Coremans, P.B., Van Meegeren’s Faked Vermeers and de Hooghs, trans. A Hardy and C. Hutt (London: Cassel, 1949).

Godley, John, Van Meegeren, Master Forger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967).

Jones, Mark, ed., Fake? The Art of Detection (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

Tietze, Hans, Genuine and False (London: Max Parrish & Co., 1948).

Werness, Hope B., “Han van Meegeren fecit,” in Denis Dutton, ed., The Forger’s Art: Forgery and the Philosophy of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).