“Driven to 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 has never seen before.”
—Han van Meegeren, 1945
Han van Meegeren was the first of the forgers to be romanticized by the media in the 20th century for his ability to fool the “infallible” experts of the art world. Like others who followed him, Van Meegeren turned to forgery out of frustration with his own artistic career and the demands of an expensive lifestyle. He began to produce forgeries of 17th century Dutch Masters in the 1920s, but they were not credible enough to earn him significant wealth. By the mid-1930s, however, Van Meegeren developed a technique to simulate the look and feel of centuries-old dried oil paint by mixing Bakelite (an early form of plastic) into his pigments. After baking in an oven, the mixture dried to a hardness that passed the alcohol and needle test, the primary forensics test of the era. Furthermore, if the material was rolled it created a convincing craquelure (cracking) pattern consistent with older oil paintings.
The 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer was rediscovered by art historians in the 1860s. Since Vermeer had a small body of work (36 known paintings), Van Meegeren was able to exploit a gap in the artist’s oeuvre to create an “early religious period”—a chapter virtually devoid of scholarship. This allowed Van Meegeren’s Supper at Emmaus to be heralded by 17th century Dutch art expert Abraham Bredius as a newly discovered Vermeer masterpiece. The painting was subsequently purchased by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Right: Han van Meegeren at his trial for forging paintings. (Photo by Yale Joel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images) © Time Life Pictures
|1889||Born Henricus Antonius (Han) van Meegeren in Deventer, Netherlands.|
|1907–1914||Studies art at Delft Technical College and Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, where he becomes familiar with Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and pigments of his period.|
|1917||Shows his original works in The Hague and initially receives positive reviews.|
|1919–1928||Accepted as a member to the Haagse Kunstkring, a society of writers and painters. Draws Princess Juliana’s pet deer from the Royal Menagerie, which becomes one of his best known works. Grows embittered because critics portray him as out-of-date and imitative of Old Masters.|
|1920–1937||Begins forgery career to help support an expensive lifestyle. Produces works that mimic Vermeer. Finds buyers, but works fail to achieve consensus authentication. Famous Dutch art expert, Abraham Bredius, is skeptical.|
|1937||Creates a new type of Vermeer from the artist’s supposed “lost religious period,” a style utterly different from known Vermeers. The Supper at Emmaus is shown to Bredius, who proclaims it a genuine Vermeer.|
|1942||Nazi banker and art dealer Alois Miedl buys Van Meegeren’s Christ with the Adulteress. Miedl sells it to Hitler associate, Hermann Göring. The painting is later confiscated by the Allies of World War II.|
|1945||Authorities charge Van Meegeren with treason for selling Dutch cultural treasures to the Nazis. His defense is that he forged Christ with the Adulteress as well as other paintings.|
|1947||Found guilty of forgery and fraud by the Amsterdam Regional Court and sentenced to prison for a minimum of one year. Before being sent to prison, Van Meegeren suffers two heart attacks and dies on November 30.|
Today, the most curious feature of Van Meegeren’s forgeries is that they look nothing like works by Vermeer. At the time, though, they closely conformed to a popular 1930s aesthetic known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which made the paintings highly believable and prized as previously undiscovered Vermeers. In addition, the faces are reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich—a popular German Hollywood film star of that period. Since Van Meegeren had to work in complete secrecy, it is plausible that he would not have employed any models, and instead took visual clues from contemporary culture.
When Van Meegeren’s 1942 painting, Christ and the Adulteress was discovered in the collection of Hitler associate Hermann Göring, Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with treason on the grounds that he collaborated with the Nazis and sold Dutch cultural heritage—a charge punishable by death. In a surprising defense, Van Meegeren confessed he had forged the work, and as proof, he painted Jesus among the Doctors before a riveted courtroom in a highly sensational trial. Ultimately convicted on lesser charges of forgery and fraud, Van Meegeren suffered two heart attacks and died before serving his one-year prison sentence.
Van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers
A Film by Han Wessels, Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen
2010, 12 minutes 37 seconds
In this film excerpt, Friso Lammertse, curator at the Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, explains how Van Meegeren was exposed as a forger through period news clips and archival newsreel footage of Van Meegeren during his trial in 1947.
Despite Van Meegeren’s admission that he forged the Vermeers, much of the art world continued to believe the paintings were authentic. In the first half of the 20th century, the only forensic technique for testing the age of a painting was a simple alcohol and needle test: a small amount of alcohol was swabbed on the painting and then a heated needle inserted; if any paint residue adhered to the cotton swab or the needle easily penetrated the paint, it proved the work had been done recently. Van Meegeren’s use of Bakelite (an early form of plastic) hardened the paint surface and effectively obstructed the tests.
Today, researchers have developed new forensic testing methods that can verify whether or not the paints used are authentic 17th century pigments. Some of the instruments used by specialists include hand held x-ray fluorescence devices and scanning electron microscopes that can identify a painting’s elemental composition.
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming
2011, 44 seconds
In this film excerpt, Beverly Perkins, conservator at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, demonstrates how a handheld x-ray flourescent (XRF) spectrometer is used to analyze and determine the elemental components of a painting. Video courtesy of The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.
When police raided Van Meegeren’s home in 1945, they found in his studio a version of 17th century Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen’s The Procuress. Assumed to be a fake, the painting was given to Geoffrey Webb, a British art historian (as well as the naval officer in charge of restoring art seized by the Nazis), and in 1960 Webb gave it to The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, for use as an educational tool. Surprisingly, in the late 1970s, a researcher at the Courtauld suggested the picture might be a legitimate 17th century work.
With the advent of scientific techniques, art experts again decried the painting as a fake on the 2011 BBC television program Fake or Fortune? Conservation scientists who x-rayed the canvas determined an earlier composition had been scraped off and the current image painted over it. In addition, when scientists took a microscopic paint sample and compared it to a sample of materials found in Van Meegeren’s studio at the time of his arrest, they discovered that both samples contained phenol formaldehyde resin, an early form of plastic known as Bakelite. Van Meegeren’s signature use of Bakelite to simulate aged oil paint proved this The Procuress was almost certainly done by the notorious art forger. The original 1622 painting by Dirck van Baburen is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and hangs in the background of two known Vermeers, Young Woman Seated at the Virginal and The Concert.
Intertwined History with Young Woman Seated at a Virginal
One of two authentic Dirck van Baburen’s paintings of The Procuress is said to have been owned by Johannes Vermeer’s mother-in-law, influencing Vermeer who reproduced it in two of his own works including Young Woman Seated at the Virginal (right). Some suspect that Van Meegeren may have used his forgery of The Procuress as a prop when he was forging his Vermeers.
Series 1, Episode 3
BBC One Production
2011, 1 minute 8 seconds
In this excerpt from the popular BBC television series Fake or Fortune?, journalist Fiona Bruce and art expert Philip Mould investigate whether The Procuress is a forgery by the hand of Han van Meegeren or whether it is, in fact, a 17th century work of art. Their research takes them to forensic laboratories to uncover the truth behind this painting that has been at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London since 1960. An analysis of the paint revealed Bakelite, the early form of plastic that only Van Meegeren is known to have used to mimic aged oil paint.
Book Excerpt: The Life of Han van Meegeren
By Friso Lammerste, Curator of Old Master paintings, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
This excerpt, from Van Meegeren’s Vermeers: The Connoiseeur’s Eye and the Forgers Art, describes the rise and fall of the infamous Dutch forger.
Friso Lammerste’s Biography
Friso Lammertse is an art historian and curator. A graduate of the University of Amsterdam in Art of Modern Times, he is the curator of Old Master paintings at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Lammertse has co-authored several publications, including Van Eyck to Bruegel, 1400-1550: Dutch and Flemish Painting in the Collection of the Museum (1994), Painting Family: The De Brays: Master Painters of 17th Century Holland (2008), Ulyenburgh and Son: Art and Commerce from Rembrant to de Lairesse, 1625-1675 (2007), and most recently, The Young Van Dyck (2013).