Faking it: Han van Meegeren’s ‘Vermeers’ and the Aesthetical Value of Forgery
Han van Meegeren (1889–1947) remains in history as the creator of the most scandalous forgeries of 17th-century artworks by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. An alleged Nazi collaborator, a drug addict, a promising artist, victim of unjustified criticism, Van Meegeren has been the subject of much art historical debate. Two main questions raised by his work will thus be the subject of this article: what was it that made his forgeries so plausible that they fooled major authorities of the art world, and are his paintings necessarily inferior in aesthetic value to authentic artworks?
To answer the first question, it is essential to consider the personal, as well as the historical context of Van Meegeren’s work. Although his paintings were initially well-received, his career took a sharp turn in 1923 when they became the subject of criticism for their lack of psychological depth. Considering himself a victim of the institution, while also being attracted to the financial prospects of forgery, Van Meegeren sought to prove his artistic genius by counterfeiting work of masters such as Terborch, Pieter de Hoogh, Baburen, Franz Hals, and then finally Vermeer.
Two main factors secured the plausibility of Van Meeregen’s forgeries. One was his art historical knowledge and another his technical proficiency. Van Meegeren did not attempt to copy the Vermeer known to art historians but rather aimed to fill in a historical gap in the Dutch master’s oeuvre. Aware that there was only one surviving painting dated to Vermeer’s early period and that it depicted a religious subject (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, 1655) Van Meegeren provided the art world with precisely what it lacked– a long lost early Vermeer. He subtly reused certain motifs from already known works by Vermeer — for example, the downcast gazes of the figures and the harmonious use of colour with predominant blue tones, the supreme result being the Supper at Emmaus.
Conscious of the fact that critics were currently searching for an Italian influence on Vermeer, Van Meegeren cleverly linked his Supper to that by Caravaggio from 1606, offering on a platter the exact link experts were trying to establish. Thus, Van Meegeren did not merely try to copy Vermeer but he fabricated a whole period of his oeuvre and by doing so created a basis for the claims of his own genius. Besides, he developed an elaborate method which made his paintings seem like 17th-century originals. This included rubbing the paint off a canvas painted by a contemporary of Vermeer and then working on it, using only pigments available to the old master and then baking the finished painting at very high heat to make the paint harden convincingly.
Despite Van Meegeren’s efforts, however, there are obvious differences, which distinguish his works from those of Vermeer, such as crammed compositions, lack of depth, and a peculiar smoothness of the picture surface. Why art critics were oblivious to these disparities can be explained through the notion of Zeitgeist (spirit of the age). Completed and sold in the eve of and during World War II, Van Meegeren’s works resonated with the air of greatness attributed to 17th-century art at the time. Given the eminent status of Vermeer’s works, the sense of quiet dramaticism of Van Meegeren’s paintings appealed to this sensibility.
Furthermore, it has been suggested that the faces in Van Meegeren’s paintings are reminiscent of the portraits of Greta Garbo common in this period, establishing an inadvertent link to popular culture and its influence on collective perception of beauty. Thus, Van Meegeren’s success is paradoxically due to conscious choices, as much as to his involuntary iconographic slips, betraying his inability to cease being a painter of his own time.
As to the question of aesthetic value, the Supper at Emmaus remains the paradigmatic example to consider. When it was ‘’discovered’’ by the renowned art connoisseur Dr Abraham Bredius in 1937, the Supper was proclaimed by him ‘’the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft’’ and praised it for its exceptional beauty. Thus, the Supper surely prompts us to consider the fake/original dichotomy epitomized by the notion of forgery, and what this implies for the concept of artistic beauty. Generally condemned as a moral and legal offence, forgery entails deception, as it attempts to misrepresent the inferior as superior. However, forgery being dependent on originality, the idea arises that it is only relevant when art is considered a creative rather than technical endeavour.
As Van Meegeren attempted to replicate Vermeer’s original technique, he doubtless committed forgery. However, because of the certain creative novelty of his painting (the qualities that make it particular to Van Meegeren’s own time) the Supper at Emmaus does convey a sense of individuality. Thus, its implied lack of artistic integrity comes not from a want for aesthetic value, as the positive comments of the deceived critics show, but rather because of a disparity between its fabrication date and its form, and content. Moreover, if we assume that Vermeer and the rest of the artists forming ‘’the canon’’ offered creative ingenuity which pushed forward the formal and stylistic developments, which generally transform the story of art into a history, Van Meegeren’s work is indeed obstructive to the history of art. By constituting a moral and legal offence, Van Meegeren’s forgeries also entail the realization that their creator would not be part of art historical discourse at all, if it was not for the uncomfortable mistake of their institutional validation. Hence, they accidentally raise the bigger question of which painters deserve critical affirmation and which do not.
Nevertheless, despite any questions raised about art historical significance of his work, Van Meegeren’s was arrested in 1945 on the charge of collaborating with the Nazis. He overtly adopted in his writings the official viewpoint of Nazi art criticism — that all modern art is decadent. Fortunately, one of Van Meegeren’s fake ‘’Vermeers’’, The Adulteress, formed part of Hermann Goring’s art collection. He had paid for it by returning to the Dutch two hundred of their looted masterpieces, which helped establish a solid case of Van Meegeren’s patriotism. Thus, he was able to admit to the lesser charge of forgery and sidetrack the lawsuit.
During the trial, Van Meegeren’s defence portrayed him as an intelligent, charismatic individual who was simply trying to prove his critics wrong. Leniency was requested on the charge of forgery, yet his lawyer maintained that he was innocent of the more serious offence with which he was being charged — fraud. This argument was facilitated by the fact that Van Meegeren never actually sold his paintings himself but relied on intermediaries. Nevertheless, he was subsequently found guilty on both charges but died of a heart attack before he could serve his year-long sentence. The case of his forgeries is clearly paradigmatic of the type of curious intrusion in art history, that prompts questions about the nature of authenticity, artistic value, and the downfalls of art criticism, which remain relevant until the present day.
Albert Blankert, ‘’ The Case of Han van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeer Supper at Emmaus Reconsidered’’ in A. Golahny, M.M. Mochizuki and L. Vergara (editors), In His Milieu: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Memory of John Michael Montias, Amsterdam University Press
Edward L. Kimball, ‘’The Artist and the Forger: Han van Meegeren and Mark Hofmann’’, Brigham Young University Studies, FALL 1987, Vol. 27, №4 (FALL 1987), pp. 5–14, Brigham Young University
Alfred Lessing, ‘’What Is Wrong with a Forgery?’’ in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Summer, 1965, Vol. 23, №4 (Summer, 1965), pp. 461–471
Hope B. Werness, ‘’Han van Meegeren fecit’’ in Dutton, Denis (ed.) The forger’s art: forgery and the philosophy of art, University of California Press: c1983.