Did the world need two new accounts of the Han Van Meegeren story? He was the 20th century Dutch forger who turned out a succession of phony Vermeers that for a time were widely accepted. Hard to say, but this summer the world got two of them anyway: The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick (Harper) and The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez (Harcourt). Last week I read both of them side by side. It turns out to be a good story, mostly about the hubris and gullibility of artworld experts.
Van Meegeren was a Dutch society portraitist of limited gifts who drifted into a sideline in fake Dutch master paintings that eventually made him phenomenally wealthy. His signal contribution to the dark art of forgery was to discover a way around the “alcohol test”. It takes at least a century for oil paint to harden to a surface so solid that alcohol can’t dissolve it. Knowing that, authenticators used to dab alcohol on canvases they thought might be recent forgeries. Van Meegeren came up with a way to combine pigment with Bakelite — plastic — to make new paints that were impervious to alcohol.
Dolnick does a better job of explaining just how a forger works, how to acquire old canvas — scraping the paint off a genuine but minor 17th-century picture is one way — or to imitate the cracked surfaces of centuries-old oil paint. (Bake the finished painting — carefully — in an oven, then bend and rub it over your knee.) Lopez takes more pains to explore Van Meegeren’s toxic politics. Though he never became a Nazi, he flirted happily for years with the far right and published for a while an ultra conservative art journal that was completely in tune with Hitler’s campaign against modern art.
After he was exposed, the only forgeries Van Meegeren acknowledged were from about 1937. But Lopez thinks he started turning out fakes as early as the 1920s, and that two false Vermeers that were sold to Andrew Mellon and actually hung until the 1950s in the National Gallery in Washington were Van Meegeren’s work. Dolnick cites Arthur Wheelock, the expert in Dutch painting at the National Gallery now, who is more inclined to suppose that the Mellon fakes might be the work of Van Meegeren’s collaborator Theo Van Wijngaarden, who figures as a character in both books.
For anyone coming to this story for the first time, there are two surprises. One is that for a few decades in the 20th century there were so many false Vermeers in circulation. At a time when there were fewer than 40 acknowledged Vermeers — today there are 36 — more than half a dozen pictures turned up abruptly in the space of not many years and expert opinion, which should have been much more suspicious of this sudden windfall, declared them as genuine. But as Dolnick observes, supply met demand, and by the 20th century Vermeer was in great demand.
The other surprise in these books is how anybody could have thought that Van Meegeren’s clunky fakes were real Vermeers. Both authors explain that Van Meegeren crafted his pictures to appeal to scholars looking for evidence that Vermeer had been influenced by Caravaggio, or at least by copies of his work. So one of Van Meegeren’s most prominent frauds is a Christ at Emmaus, as Dolnick calls it — or Supper at Emmaus, Lopez’s title — a painting that has echoes of the two versions of the same scene that were produced by Caravaggio. Once he had succeeded in having that comically inept canvas certified by the experts as the real thing — more than that, as one of the most beautiful and moving Vermeers of all — he could make other forgeries in the same awkward style and have them recognized as further examples of Vermeer’s “other” style, what anybody with normal eyesight would now call the ugly one.
Van Meegeren managed to sell one of these, a completely ridiculous Christ and the Adulteress, to none other than Hitler’s Reich Marshal Hermann Goering, who was determined to get his own Vermeer after ceding a couple to the Fuehrer. Very soon after the liberation of the Netherlands, when the Adulteress picture was still assumed to be legitimate, Van Meegeren was arrested for wartime trading with the enemy, which carried serious penalties. Under questioning he offered a stunning defense — that he hadn’t sold anything of value to Goering because that painting wasn’t a Vermeer, it was by him. If anything he was a hero because he had pulled a fast one on the detested Nazi. (There were penalties were forgery too, but much less serious ones.) To prove his point, Van Meegeren even painted another large scale “Vermeer” for his American captors and whichever members of the press and public came by to watch him work. He was eventually sentenced to a year in prison but died of a heart attack before he could start serving his sentence. He died a hero to the Dutch, the “man who swindled Goering”, but in the years since then the fuller story has emerged. Full enough to fill two books. Take your pick.