Tuesday, August 4th, 2009
Han van Meegeren
If you thought that the painting above, Woman Reading Music (Rijksmuseum), was by Vermeer, you’re mistaken. Don’t feel too bad – for a while this painting was thought to be the work of the 17th century master. This webpage points out how the model in this painting is the same one in Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter; furthermore, this painting is set in the same location as Vermeer’s Woman with Lute. In actuality, though, this painting was completed sometime between 1935-40 by the forger Han Van Meegeren.
Van Megeeren was a master forger who spent much of his career making forgeries, particularly in the style of Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. Right now I’m reading more about Van Meegeren in the book, The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez. It’s a really interesting book and I highly recommend it. It’s really fascinating to read about what forgers do to make their art convincingly old – the paint needs to have a certain chemical compound to imitate old oil paintings, and yet withstand the chemical tests that determine authenticity. Plus, the forgery needs to be created on the canvas of an old painting from about the same period – the forgery is painted on top of the ground layer of the original painting, so that the final product convincingly has the same craquelure. Forgers definitely are clever.
It’s no surprise that as a forger, Van Meegeren latched onto the idea of creating paintings by Vermeer. During the latter half of the 19th century, Vermeer was rediscovered and celebrated within the art world. There are only 35 known paintings by Vermeer, which really isn’t very many at all (by contrast, it’s estimated that Picasso created around 50,000 works of art). Many scholars think that Vermeer did not create many more paintings than the ones that are known today. The last Vermeer paintings to be rediscovered were Woman Holding a Balance (rediscovered in 1911) and Girl with the Red Hat (rediscovered in 1925).1
These last discoveries took place during Van Meegeren’s early career, and the art world was desperate to try and find more work by Vermeer. It’s amazing to read how hungry museums and collectors were to snatch up “Vermeers” during all this hype – the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam paid an enormous sum of around 550, 000 guilders for Van Meegeren’s forgery of Supper at Emmaus (painted in Vermeer’s early style).2 From what I calculated using this site, it looks like that would have amounted to around $4 million in today’s currency.
Here are a couple of other forgeries by Han Van Meegeren:
Malle Babbe, in the style of Frans Hals, ca. 1935 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Girl with a Blue Bow, ca. 1924 (The Hyde Collection; Glens Falls, New York)
A Young Woman Reading, ca. 1926 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Lace Maker, ca. 1925 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
If you are interested in looking at more Van Meegeren forgeries, someone is starting to compile a list with images here. You can also read more about Van Meegeren’s story and trial here.
So, what do you think of the forgeries? It’s interesting to think about how authorship changes the value and reception of a forged work of art. Do you think that these works of art are not as good, now that they have been revealed to be the work of an imposter? Personally, I think that Van Meegeren had a lot of talent. But I think it’s sad that he didn’t utilize his talent to develop an original style. It takes talent to imitate the masters, but I think it takes more talent to create your own artistic niche.
1 Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meegeren (New York: Harcourt Books, 2008), 53.
2Vermeer, Johannes.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online,
I hate to play devil's advocate for such a horrible thing considering I'm sure a lot of forgeries are done for the purpose of getting rich, but I can't help but feel for van Meegren. Is that weird? I was reading the article you linked to and I felt so bad for him. Seems like he truly was a man of talent (I mean, look at those paintings — they are fantastic!), but like the majority of people in the world, he didn't get the recognition he likely deserved. I suppose I feel for him because he's a representation of true talent lost in a sea of indifference. Does any of that make sense?
The article ends with him saying, "I produced them not for money but for art's sake." While what he did was wrong, I do think it is sad.
On another note, he has made himself at leas somewhat famous now — I'm going to go back to National Gallery of Art JUST to see The Lace Maker in person!
You have brought up a really interesting point, e. Personally, I haven't decided how I feel about Van Meegeren. The viewpoint that Van Meegeren was a misunderstood genius was widely popular in 1945 (back when Van Meegeren was exposed), and it still is very popular today. In fact, another fairly recent book I Was Vermeer (by Frank Wynne) takes the viewpoint that Van Meegeren was motivated to paint fakes so the misunderstood artist could lash out against the Dutch art establishment.
However, the book I am reading by Lopez takes another stance; Lopez thinks that Van Meegeren was a good-for-nothing whose motivation for forgery was pure avarice. Lopez wrote The Man Who Made Vermeers with the express purpose of "unvarnishing" Van Meegeren's legend and revealing the artist's true character.
I haven't decided yet if I find Lopez's argument to be convincing. I'm only halfway through the book at this point, and so far I have gotten the sense that Van Meegeren was extremely arrogant, but I'm not convinced that Van Meegeren was a hardened criminal. We'll see what I think by the end of the book. At this point, I'm inclined to believe somewhere between the middle of the two theories: Van Meegeren appears to be an arrogant, misunderstood artist who had a criminal edge.
I'm jealous that you can pop over to the National Gallery whenever you want. I hope that The Lace Maker is on display right now! 🙂
Hm, sounds like a good read. Last year I read The Forger's Spell:A True Story of Vermeer,Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the 20th Centry by Edward Dolnick and it was great! He talked alot about the Nazis' love of art and old masters and how amazing it was that Van Meegeren duped them. I was secretly happy for Van Meegeren for sticking it to them. 🙂
I don't see Van Meegeren as a hardened criminal; I think he was hurt by the criticism aimed at his own artwork and decided to use his talent a different way. Not an honest way, but still, what a genius! I mean, imagine the hours and HOURS it took him to get the craquelure (sp?) just right. Amazing.
You make an excellent point. It is definitely true that sometimes the most convincing "misunderstood geniuses" are really just master manipulators.
Let us know what you think when you finish the book.
I'm going to contact the Gallery of Art and see if it is on display!
This is so interesting. I love challenging authorship and the "aura" of the master artist's hand. It reminds me of the whole "is-it-a-real-Rembrandt?" debaucle late last century. The way that his students' artworks were demoted when it was discovered that they weren't produced by Rembrandt's hands.
I think we crave to stand in the same spot that the artist stood, looking at something he/she touched with their own hands. We sometimes don't care about the quality of the work, so long as it can give us that sense of linkage across time.
Have you ever seen "How to Steal a Million?" It's got Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn in it, and it's a fun caper-movie about a master art forger.
Oh, and I love the first van Meegren painting at the top. I love its cool palette and quiet tone.
Char, you're right about how people crave a linkage across time. There is an added element of mystique when one sees something that a master artist created hundreds of years ago.
I suppose that's one thing that the public may find disappointing about Van Meegeren's art – even though the paintings are good, they are not three hundred years old. Since they have not outlasted through the centuries, the paintings lose that added element of mystery.
And then again, a different element of mystique is added to forged paintings. I guess they serve a different type of intrigue and appeal, even though the magical concept of history and time is lost.
I have seen "How to Steal a Million." Isn't that a fun film?
Personally I don't think those paintings look like Vermeer (not that I'm seeing them in person, so it's hard to say). I think the market drives these kinds of issues artificially. Every museum and collector wants a Vermeer. If Van Megen hadn't confessed to painting them, we would probably still consider them Vermeers!
I read a novel once where the main character was chasing an art forger and said that there is really no way to tell between an forged work and the original. For all we know, half the stuff in museums might be fakes. I have no idea if that's true or not, but it is a pretty fascinating/scary concept.
Oooh, heidenkind, that is a fascinating idea! I have enough faith in connoisseurship to think that museums don't have that many fakes, but it certainly is an entertaining thought.
I agree with what you said about how the art market drives these kinds of issues. It's also interesting to see how the art market can affect art historical scholarship, particularly in this situation with Vermeer forgeries. I just read in Lopez's book about how another Van Meegeren fake ("The Gentleman and Lady at the Spinet") was determined by Abraham Bredius to be authentic. Bredius then wrote an article in the Burlington Magazine ("An Unpublished Vermeer" in the October 1932 issue) discussing this new "masterpiece" and also criticizing all of the fake Vermeers that had surfaced. Pretty ironic, since Bredius was writing about a fake painting himself! Anyhow, Lopez points out that this article was meant as an attack against American art collector Joseph Duveen, who had previously refused to purchase Vermeer's Allegory of Faith from Bredius. (See Lopez, 112). Perhaps this problematic article could have been avoided if Bredius had been less-hasty to authenticate this painting and lash out against Duveen.
I guess it goes to show that you should check into a scholar's (or connoisseur's!) biases before accepting their argument at face-value.
So, I finished the book last night. I decided that Lopez is quite convincing in showing that Van Meegeren developed an image of himself as a misunderstood genius. It's quite fascinating to read the end of the book and the trial – Van Meegeren really was able to construct quite a positive image in the public eye. And newspapers kept latching onto this fabled idea of Van Meegeren. One frustrated reporter saw through Van Meegeren's ploy and frustratedly wrote that Van Meegeren was a "human forgery."
The tone of the trial also was very interesting – everyone was laughing at Van Meegeren's jokes and treating him like he was the greatest thing. It's mind-boggling to see how this guy was able to manipulate and charm so many people. Then again, people were trying to latch onto positive stories and ideas during the post-WWII era. It seems like the public really wanted to focus on how the clever Van Meegeren swindled the Nazi leader, not on how Van Meegeren had swindled the whole art world.
For creating all of his forgeries, Van Meegeren was sentenced to only one year in prison. Ironically, he never served a day of that sentence – he died of heart of a heart attack in December 1947, right before he was supposed to go behind bars.
For anyone who's interested, the NY Times had a series revolving around Van Meegeren earlier this summer. You can read "Bamboozling Ourselves" here.