THE ART FORGER WHO BECAME A NATIONAL HERO.
The case of Han van Meegeren, the boldest modern forger of Old Masters (as far as we know), is a grand yarn of twisty deceit, involving prestigious dupes and scads of money, with a sensational trial at the finish. It even has a serious side. Van Meegeren, since his death, in 1947, has become a compulsive reference for philosophical discussions of fact and fraud in art—a subject bound to disquiet art lovers. (Be honest. What you are given to believe about an art work is going to color your experience of it.) He became the most original of fakers when, starting in 1936, he put aside mere canny simulations, mostly of the work of Johannes Vermeer, to create wildly implausible pictures which were presented as discoveries of a missing phase in the artist’s conveniently spotty, little-documented opus. (Only thirty-five undisputed Vermeers exist today. As an added boon to forgers, a few aren’t very good.) Van Meegeren’s tour de force was a feat more of intellect than of skill. He knew whom he had to fool first: an eighty-three-year-old monster of vanity named Abraham Bredius, who had an earned, though moldering, track record as an authenticator of newfound Vermeers. In 1937, in the august British art-history journal The Burlington Magazine, Bredius declared “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first of van Meegeren’s late counterfeits, to be “themasterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Other Dutch experts concurred, under pressure to keep a national treasure from being sold overseas. (The remarkably dreary canvas still hangs, presented now as a historical curio, at the Boijmans Museum, in Rotterdam, which bought it in 1937.) It took van Meegeren himself to reveal the truth, in 1945, when not to do so might have put his neck in a hangman’s noose.
Two new books re-spin the van Meegeren saga, one breezily, with entertaining digressions on secondary figures and the arcana of forgery, and the other in profoundly researched, focussed, absorbing depth. “The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (Harper; $26.95), by the science journalist Edward Dolnick, aggrandizes the story’s abundant hooks, such as the happenstance that van Meegeren’s victims included the art maven Hermann Göring, who, in 1943, swapped a hundred and thirty-seven paintings from his largely ill-gotten collection for a van Meegeren Vermeer. “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren” (Harcourt; $26), by the writer and artist Jonathan Lopez, brings hard light to van Meegeren’s machinations and (very bad) character. Lopez debunks the myths, savored by Dolnick, which cast the forger as a romantic avenger, and which sweeten the tale in other ways. It seems that Göring, while awaiting trial in Nuremberg, may not have learned that his cherished Vermeer was a phony, as nice as it is to think that he did. This small point is notable because, in time, the fact that van Meegeren had scammed Göring helped him not only to evade charges of collaboration but to become a folk hero. Lopez demonstrates how evidence of the painter’s coziness with the Occupation regime got buried by the single question of whether he had sold Göring a patrimonial cynosure (potentially a capital offense) or a worthless fake. Early in 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the newly elected Prime Minister.
Van Meegeren was born in 1889, in the provincial city of Deventer, the third of five children in a middle-class Catholic family. In 1907, his father, a schoolmaster, sent him to Vermeer’s city, Delft, to study architecture. The feckless lad preferred to paint and draw. In 1911, he got his girlfriend, a Protestant named Anna de Voogt, pregnant. They married and soon had a second child. He worked as an assistant drawing instructor (the only steady job he ever held) until 1917, when he moved his household to “the city of beautiful nonsense,” as a contemporaneous guidebook characterized The Hague—the home of the royal family and an illustrious strutting ground for the idle rich. There he launched himself as an artist. With “his small, birdlike frame constantly aflutter and his irreverent sense of humor,” in Lopez’s description, van Meegeren beguiled the town. (A photograph of him from 1918, in Lopez’s book, made me laugh out loud; he comes across as the archetypal simpering fop, fit to start a scene by P. G. Wodehouse.) Lopez—who, unlike Dolnick, speaks Dutch and is steeped in the history of the period—records that van Meegeren became the favorite artist of the Liberal State Party of the Netherlands, a fading force of the patrician élite. His work was sprightly, in a nostalgically conservative vein. His pretty, filmy drawing of a doe, identified as a pet of the young Princess Julianna, became a popular icon throughout the Netherlands. Reproductions testify that he had a subtle sense of color and a firm gift for telling portraiture. Come to think of it, what are artistic forgeries but portraits of imaginary art works?
Van Meegeren’s first legitimate exhibition in The Hague, in 1917, of work in several genres, reaped positive reviews. His second, five years later, of Christian religious paintings, sold well but repelled critics with its treacly piety—van Meegeren, it turned out, was a student of Scripture. (In the show, there was an early-warning “Supper at Emmaus”—representing Jesus, who has appeared as a stranger to his disciples after his death, being recognized at the moment when he breaks bread for them.) Informed opinion consigned van Meegeren to the always populous ranks of the formerly promising. He evoked the setback poignantly in his public confession, in 1945: “Driven into a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-too-meager appreciation of my work, I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world had never seen before.” That’s rubbish, if only because the “something” to which van Meegeren referred—his invention of a new Vermeer style—was just the latest chapter in a then still unknown, long-running criminal enterprise. Lopez affirms that van Meegeren was dirty before his artistic reputation collapsed. He speculates—reasonably, to my mind—that faking ruined the artist’s creativity. “Slowly but surely, the imitative logic of forgery condemned Van Meegeren to a state of arrested development,” Lopez writes. The state of being oneself dies when set aside.
Lopez dates van Meegeren’s initiation into The Hague’s underworld of art swindlers to 1920, at the latest. He was mentored by a dealer and painter, Theo van Wijngaarden, who had apprenticed in chicanery with a titan: Leo Nardus. Nardus stuck American millionaires with innumerable old copies, fresh fakes, and fanciful misattributions of famous artists until 1908, when a panel of invited experts, including Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry, convened at the home of the Philadelphia streetcar magnate P. A. B. Widener and concluded that his collection was worth about five per cent of what Nardus had charged him for it. (Found out but unexposed—to spare Widener and other duped moguls public embarrassment—Nardus was left free to indulge his passions for chess and swordsmanship; he won a bronze medal in fencing for the Dutch team at the 1912 Olympics.) The hardly less resourceful van Wijngaarden, on his own, perfected a paint medium, gelatin glue, to finesse a standard test for the age of oil paint: rubbing with alcohol, which dissolves oils that have had less than decades to dry. (The glue weathers alcohol but, as was later discovered—too late for a generation of marks—softens on contact with another chemical compound: water.) Van Wijngaarden maintained a network of well-placed accomplices, extending to London and Berlin, who could pilot fakes into the mainstream of respectable commerce. He lacked only top-drawer product. He himself painted well, but not well enough. He wanted an adept protégé, and he found him in van Meegeren, who was ready.
Soon after arriving in The Hague, van Meegeren had cast off Anna and the children and taken up with the raffish Johanna de Boer, the actress wife of a friend. She became his complaisant partner for life and, in 1928, his second wife, apparently indulgent of his extravagant and libertine ways, as well as his alcoholism, which became full-blown in the early nineteen-thirties. During the war, van Meegeren even maintained a separate house, in Amsterdam, for partying, where, it was reported, prostitutes were encouraged to grab jewels from an opened strongbox on their way out. Johanna is frustratingly shadowy in both books. What she knew of her husband’s crimes needn’t be plumbed. Starting in the nineteen-twenties, his spasmodic income, which added up to millions of pre-inflation dollars, would have spoken for itself. After 1932, the couple inhabited houses on the French Riviera, where van Meegeren could more easily evade questions about his mysterious wealth. But Johanna’s point of view would be fascinating grist—for a novel, if not enough is discoverable to flesh out a biography. The same can be said of several supporting players in the comedy. Dolnick gratifies a reader’s side-long interest with piquant accounts of, among others, the gulled Bredius, a gay, once brilliant aesthete, living in splendor in Monaco, with an insatiable ache for prestige, and Joseph Piller, a young Jewish lieutenant and hero of the Dutch Resistance, who arrested van Meegeren—knocking at the door of the artist’s grand house on May 29, 1945—and then, in a fever of vicarious celebrity, became his champion, a seduction trenchantly conveyed by Lopez. (The “fat, swaggering” figure of the infinitely grotesque Göring, however, distractingly consumes far more pages in Dolnick’s narrative than his part warrants.)
Van Meegeren never admitted having produced any of the known gelatin-glue Vermeers, which included “The Lacemaker” and “The Smiling Girl,” but he almost certainly did paint them. Van Wijngaarden steered the pictures to the attention of a revered German connoisseur, Wilhelm von Bode, who was taken in by them—predictably, as they seem to have been created with him in mind. (“The Smiling Girl” echoed a detail of a Vermeer—“The Girl with a Glass of Wine”—that Bode had adored since his early youth.) The always sticky matter of provenance was glossed over with tales of impecunious émigrés from the Russian Revolution—at a time when toppled aristocrats manned hotel doors throughout Europe—and amid expectations that lost works by Vermeer were bound to turn up, several having done so since his rediscovery by a French connoisseur in the eighteen-sixties. The two paintings were sold to the Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon by the magus of Old Master dealers, Joseph Duveen, and adorned the National Gallery in Washington, at one point nervously reassigned to a “Follower of Vermeer,” in the nineteen-seventies. “The Lacemaker,” especially, looks silly now, depicting a pert young woman who could be a sidekick of Louise Brooks. But superior forgeries typically secrete subliminally up-to-the-minute associations, which pass, at first blush, as signs of “timeless” genius. The art historian Max Friedländer, who said, “Forgeries must be served hot,” promulgated a forty-year rule—four decades or so being how long it takes for the modern nuances of a forgery to date themselves as clichés of the period in which they were painted. Duveen was misled, although he wasn’t by van Meegeren’s “Emmaus.” In 1937, he sent his right-hand man, Edward Fowles, to inspect the painting in Paris. Fowles cabled, “PICTURE A ROTTEN FAKE.” (Duveen kept the verdict to himself; saving other dealers from disgrace didn’t figure in his business plan.) Both books vivify the wild-and-woolly milieu of Jazz Age dealing in old art. Barely professionalized, and with museum science still primitive, the trade relied on the often snap judgments of glorified amateurs, of whom even the loftiest (even Berenson) were goof-prone—Duveen had earlier spurned “Girl with the Red Hat,” the only true Vermeer to emerge in the twenties.
Dolnick is good on van Meegeren’s studio practice, which kept pace with scientific progress. Mediocre old paintings, from the prolific Dutch Golden Age, were cheaply available, as grounds to paint on; but the overnight creation of a convincingly antique paint surface was a challenge. Van Meegeren’s late fakes deploy Bakelite, which, as a liquid medium, hardens with heat and stands up to almost any solvent. He learned, with difficulty, to make an ancestor of modern plastics ape the fluency of oils. Many failed experiments led at length to a proper blend, with admixed floral oils, and the correct baking recipe. “Emmaus,” a big picture, would have been larger, but the old painting, on its original stretchers, that van Meegeren bought for the job wouldn’t fit in his makeshift oven. As a matter of course, he used only pigments that were available to Vermeer, and concocted effects of age: craquelure, wormholes, yellowed varnish, soilage, and, for good measure in “Emmaus,” a poorly repaired rip. He turned negligent in subsequent works. Göring’s canvas, “Christ and the Adulteress,” employs cobalt blue, a nineteenth-century innovation in paints, and it is carelessly drawn, with anatomical solecisms in the figures. But van Meegeren no longer had to evoke Vermeer. It was enough that the hand that painted the works plainly be the same that had painted “Emmaus.” In 1945, his captor, Joseph Piller, had him paint a valedictory Vermeer, putatively to settle doubts of his confession but really, Lopez establishes, as a publicity stunt. That showpiece, “Christ in the Temple,” strikes me, in reproduction, as by far the most fetching of the lot, garnished with a droll anachronism: Jesus holds forth over an opened Bible. Time-travelled to recent years, van Meegeren would have made an upstanding postmodernist.
In the nineteen-thirties, painting Vermeers became less of a problem for van Meegeren than legitimatizing them. Having drifted out of touch with complicit intermediaries, he came into his own as a con man, tricking innocents into bringing his goods to market. The patsy for “Emmaus” was a Liberal State Party parliamentarian, Gerard A. Boon, who had led the successful fight for woman suffrage in the Netherlands and was a fierce critic of Nazi Germany. Van Meegeren convinced this good man that the painting belonged to a Dutch family living in Italy, who, persecuted by the Fascist authorities, desperately needed funds for an escape to America. The rest was intricate but, once Bredius was on board, smoothly managed. Boon’s receptiveness to van Meegeren is a puzzle, given Lopez’s insistence that the artist was an arch ultra-rightist. But his case seems solid. For three years, starting in 1928, in The Hague, van Meegeren published a scurrilous magazine, De Kemphann (The Fighting Cock), in which, Lopez writes, he “denounced modern painting as ‘art-Bolshevism,’ described its proponents as a ‘slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,’ and invoked the image of ‘a Jew with a handcart’ as a symbol for the international art market.” He execrated van Gogh in particular. In 1945, while van Meegeren was imprisoned, an awkward item turned up in Hitler’s private library at the Reich Chancellery, in Berlin: a deluxe volume of poems by a Dutch Nazi poet, illustrated by van Meegeren and inscribed, in German, “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942.” Van Meegeren acknowledged the signature but theorized that a German officer must have penned the dedication, even though the handwriting was clearly the same. At his trial on an open-and-shut charge of forgery, all such matters were ignored. Urges to go easy on van Meegeren seem to have afflicted ordinarily sensible people—Dolnick among them, in much of his book—as if by hypnosis.
Lopez advances a sophisticated and troubling answer to the question that is most likely to baffle us: How could anyone, for an instant, have taken “Emmaus” to be a work by Vermeer? I remember being stupefied, many years ago, when, ignorant of van Meegeren, I came upon the painting in the Boijmans. It seemed not only unlike Vermeer but unlike anything this side of a thrift shop. I missed stylistic cues that both Lopez and Dolnick describe, mainly the borrowed composition of a 1606 “Emmaus” by Caravaggio. This planted secret thrilled scholars who had been debating possible Italian influences on Vermeer, one writer having gone so far as to wonder if a lost work might be found to prove the connection. Vermeer was known to have painted one Biblical scene—“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55)—why not another? He was, and still is, suspected of having been a closet Catholic, embracing a faith, his wife’s, that was banned in Delft. Both the character and the obscure provenance of “Emmaus” made sense if it had been created for one of Delft’s clandestine Catholic churches. But that does not explain the enthusiasm of credulous aesthetes for a dismal painting. Lopez deduces a blind spot in our art-historical knowledge and, indeed, in our larger comprehension of European culture between the World Wars. We may easily peg the party-girl mien in “The Lacemaker” and the longueur of another van Meegeren triumph, “The Girl with a Blue Hat,” bought by the major collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, which merits its sobriquet, “The Greta Garbo Vermeer.” But the period accent of “Emmaus” escapes us.
It’s Volksgeist, Lopez argues. “Folk spirit” has a long genealogy of relatively benign synonyms, such as “national character.” Hegel promoted it as a force in history. But the idea generated new, dark energies in the prewar period. Styles of heavily expressive, soulful celebrations of common people were prevalent in Germany. Unlike the better-known socialist realism, with its crisp paeans to the proletariat, Volkisch art cultivated painterly effects to stir both Christian and pagan mystical associations, favoring peasant scenes and such themes as familial devotion and earth-mother fecundity. Besides tapping that vogue, van Meegeren pandered to an eagerness, among rightist critics, to winkle out Germanic roots of classical Dutch art. He seems to have modelled the head of Christ, in his “Emmaus,” on a self-portrait by Dürer—a recondite proof of influence that he could count on experts to notice. Lopez argues that the determined suppression, after the war, of anything with a Nazi odor—and a chronic lack of appetite for the material ever since—leaves us blinking at hints of a style that was second nature in Europe seventy years ago. The contemporary resonance surely startled viewers at the time, but, rather than raise eyebrows, it enlarged the sense of Vermeer’s greatness. It seemed more than conceivable that a genius of his calibre could foreshadow future sensibilities as, say, Leonardo da Vinci is routinely credited with having done. Lopez’s exegesis of Nazi-tinged artistry is hard to absorb, without nausea, in the way that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” is hard to watch. But an empathetic grasp of that time’s susceptibility to van Meegeren’s bait brings the climactic scene of his trial, in Amsterdam, in October, 1947, to life.
Apparently, by 1947, the Dutch were not only tired of the war but tired of being tired of it, too. After a paroxysm of angry revenge on collaborators, they craved a carnival. Van Meegeren became a giddy nation’s “Lord of Misrule,” Lopez writes. Brushed aside were treasonous commissions for the Occupation and dealings with the vilest of local quislings—mainly the art commissioner Ed Gerdes, a zealous anti-Semite—and with Alois Miedl, a Bavarian banker who became Göring’s man in the Dutch art world, energetically plundering Jewish collections. Van Meegeren’s humiliation of so many stuffed shirts, Nazi and otherwise, was too pricelessly funny to be marred by stale grudges. The trial took place in a courtroom hung with “Emmaus” and other van Meegeren hoaxes. Superfluously, the artist having confessed, technical experts presented charts, graphs, and slides of a new test that proved the works’ recent manufacture. Van Meegeren fulsomely congratulated the men on their ingenuity. The faking of Old Masters would henceforth be impossible, he said. Courtroom onlookers clapped and whistled. I imagine, extrapolating from Lopez, that their pleasure went beyond jolly Schadenfreude. Seeing the celebrated paintings exposed as fraudulent may have enabled a purge of formerly impressive symbols. The auratic Christ and the wonderstruck disciples turned farcical. The slim, silver-haired van Meegeren, dapper in a blue serge suit, seems to have read the mood (whatever it was) perfectly and to have milked it for advantage.
He had done the Vermeers only to prove himself, he testified, hewing to what Lopez calls “the master-forger-as-misunderstood-genius storyline,” which the prosecution failed to deflate. At one point, the judge hazarded a skeptical note: “You do admit, though, that you sold these pictures for very high prices?” Van Meegeren’s answer cracked up the room: “I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.” He could get away with anything: “I didn’t do it for the money, which brought me nothing but trouble and unhappiness.” Just one witness, an art historian who had been active in the Resistance, hinted at shady aspects of van Meegeren’s wartime conduct. The artist countered with a mocking, nonsensical cross-examination, to the audience’s delight. The witness, Lopez writes, “smiled in a self-deprecating way and then wisely dropped the subject. Clearly, the day belonged to the master forger.” Cheering fans greeted van Meegeren when he emerged from the court. He was sentenced to a year in prison and forfeiture of his wealth (except for a sizable chunk that he had settled on Johanna by the legal stratagem of divorcing her). He died two months later, of heart failure—probably, Lopez reports, as a complication of syphilis. He was fifty-eight years old. Lopez, though intent on proving van Meegeren a skunk, can’t deny him a parting note of admiration: “To give him his due, he was indeed a truly brilliant fraud.”
Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin. ♦