By Jeanne Schinto for The Maine Antiques Digest
Like many people, I have always had an odd fondness for Han van Meegeren. True, the Dutchman was a forger, but didn’t he paint those fakes just to embarrass an egotistical art critic? Wasn’t he a discouraged artist who, treated unfairly by the art establishment, demonstrated that he was talented enough to have his work mistaken for Vermeer’s? Didn’t he also sell a bogus painting to someone who is nobody’s idea of a mensch, Hermann Göring? And wasn’t he able to prove himself innocent of selling that purported treasure-and becoming a Nazi collaborator in the process-by painting another worthless canvas while authorities watched? Not exactly.
In a fascinating new book by Jonathan Lopez, van Meegeren is revealed to be not only a forger-for-hire of at least nine Vermeers (as well as works meant to be taken for ones by Frans Hals, Gerard Terborch, and Pieter de Hooch) but also a foister upon the world of a fraudulent life story. For all the years since his trial in 1945, he should not have been revered as a folk hero. Rather, he should have been seen as an ordinary crook conducting an underhanded business transaction when he sold his phony Christ and the Adulteress to the Luftwaffe’s commander in chief.
What is morally more reprehensible, he actually was a Hitler enthusiast, Lopez shows in The Man Who Made Vermeers. “Van Meegeren truly believed in the fascist dream,” declares Lopez, who credits Dutch doctoral student Marijke van den Brandhof with combing through the Dutch state archives in the 1970’s to find the first “extensive documentary evidence of Van Meegeren’s wartime collaborationist activities.”
Lopez’s self-described “liar’s biography,” however, is much more than a simple debunking. By showing how van Meegeren’s gradual conversion to Hitlerism dovetails with his development as a forger, the writer (who is also an artist) tells a story with much more depth and interest than any of the previous, prettied-up accounts of van Meegeren’s life. For what is a forger, Lopez asks, “if not a closeted Übermensch, an artist who secretly takes history itself for his canvas, who alters the past to suit his present needs?”
Forgers never work alone. Van Meegeren (1889-1947) was part of a vast art trade network of dealers and others capitalizing on recently enriched industrialists’ taste for old masters. Besides a ready market, forgers also need front men and people willing to explain a newly “discovered” picture’s origins. In van Meegeren’s case, he wasn’t even his own mastermind. According to Lopez, it was Theodore Ward, an English businessman of German extraction and an expert in the chemistry of paint. As for van Meegeren’s unwitting accomplices, one was an elderly critic, Abraham Bredius, whose “certificate of expertise” pronounced van Meegeren’s The Supper at Emmaus to be not only a masterpiece but “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”
Informed that Duveen Brothers literally wasn’t buying it (despite having bought and sold two fake Vermeers from others), Bredius, with his professional reputation at stake, helped van Meegeren’s go-between find a Dutch buyer for the painting. That buyer was Rotterdam’s Boijmans Museum, which with much pomp exhibited it there in 1938.
The painting, one of seven van Meegeren Vermeers with religious themes, shows a risen Christ eating supper with two of his disciples—his appetite being proof that he was alive again, not merely a spirit. Why was the art-buying public (including Göring) so willing to believe the lie that Vermeer’s career had a lengthy biblical period? Why didn’t it matter that these works don’t seem at all like authentic Vermeers?
According to Lopez’s carefully argued theory, it was because the works echoed “the volkisch Aryan propaganda imagery of the era.” The Supper at Emmaus, he goes so far as to say, is “a subtle homage to Nazi image making.” And, of course, “excitement and hoopla…had kept a lot of people from seeing the scheming dictator in Berlin for what he was too.”
Frauds and villains like these occur in a context, at a specific historical moment. That’s the lesson that Lopez seems to want us most to learn from his book. Van Meegeren, Göring, Hitler, all were products of their time and place, just as today’s frauds and villains are being revealed as products of ours.