The first time Han van Meegeren exhibited his paintings, at a Hague art gallery called Pictura in 1917, the critics were ecstatic. “He shall find many admirers,” predicted De Nieuwe Courant, one of the leading newspapers in Holland.
Five years later, the critics turned on him. “Pictorial gallivanting,” pronounced the elite Dutch magazine Elsevier, asserting that van Meegeren’s new biblical tableaux had “no profound meaning.” Writing for the daily Het Vaderland, the influential art reviewer Just Havelaar was more explicit. “Whenever he set about to paint Christ,” Havelaar wrote of van Meegeren’s two-room show at the Hague’s Kunstzaal Biesing, “he could not avoid the notion of something highly noble and exceedingly grievous to be represented, with the result that his Christ figures are often insipid and sweet, sometimes miserably forsaken, always weak and powerless.” Though the gallery found buyers for van Meegeren’s virtuoso depictions of the young Christ teaching in the Temple and the supper at Emmaus, his earnings could hardly compensate for the injury to his reputation.
Over the following decade and a half, van Meegeren redoubled his efforts, painting scenes of contemporary life fraught with symbolism, as well as commissioned portraits of rich patrons, but the critics appreciated none of it. “They resented his independence,” the journalist Irving Wallace later related in the Saturday Evening Post. “When Dutch critics approached him with the routine promise of writing good reviews of his exhibits if he would pay them, van Meegeren indignantly refused. So the critics wrote bad reviews.” No matter how fervently he protested, they would not relent. “At last, in 1936, when he could bear the criticism no more, van Meegeren determined to get even.”
That autumn, working alone in a secret studio, van Meegeren created a new version of the supper at Emmaus. He painted on antique canvas with a badger-hair brush, using old-fashioned pigments including ultramarine and cinnabar. Setting the supper table with dishes and goblets from the 1600s, he embellished the scene with 17th-century stylistic touches such as pointelle. Then he signed it, not with his own name but with a monogram. In the upper left corner, he wrote the letters IV Meer.
One year later, a short article appeared in the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. “It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio,” wrote Abraham Bredius, former director of the Hague’s Mauritshuis Museum. “And what a picture! We have here a—I am inclined to say the—masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Bredius found nothing to criticize and everything to praise. “Outstanding is the head of Christ, serene and sad... yet full of goodness,” he eulogized. “In no other picture by the Great Master of Delft do we find such sentiment, such a profound understanding of the Bible story—a sentiment so nobly human expressed through the medium of the highest art.” On the strength of that laudatory text, and the author’s eminence, the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam acquired the painting for 520,000 guilders—approximately $3.9 million today—and made The Supper at Emmaus the centerpiece of a blockbuster exhibition on the Dutch golden age.
The art establishment was enraptured. “The discovery of Emmaus is the most important art historical event of this century,” wrote the scholar Frithjof van Thienen in a 1939 monograph on the master of Delft. “The painting shows Vermeer at his best.” Moreover Emmaus established van Meegeren’s visual language as Vermeer’s own. Under the same legendary monogram, he avenged himself on the experts five more times between 1937 and 1943, before taking credit for creating Holland’s most fêted paintings.
Rather than condemn his crime, the press embraced van Meegeren with a fervor to match the experts’ erstwhile enthusiasm for Emmaus. In the Netherlands, his story was rapidly packaged as a novel and a comic book, and his saga spread globally through popular media, including The Saturday Evening Post. In Wallace’s phrasing, van Meegeren’s hoax stood to “vindicate his claims and blast the complacency of art criticism.” The Dutch public concurred. A poll showed that van Meegeren was the second most popular man in Holland—bested only by the newly elected prime minister—and citizens petitioned to build a statue in his honor. After five years of German wartime occupation, during which the nation’s powerful opportunistically collaborated with the enemy, van Meegeren symbolized the virtue of challenging authority.
Yet the unquestioning authority with which van Meegeren’s saga was told had problems of its own. When he wasn’t counterfeiting Vermeers, van Meegeren had spent the 1940s opportunistically painting Third Reich propaganda. And before the war? Han van Meegeren began his career as a counterfeiter in 1920, two years prior to the first murmuring about pictorial gallivanting. Van Meegeren’s greatest forgery was his own life story. The year of Han van Meegeren’s debut at Kunstzaal Pictura is better known by art historians as the year Theo van Doesburg launched De Stijl in Leiden, less than fifteen miles northeast of the Hague. Aesthetically, the journal and the movement it spawned were a world apart from van Meegeren’s quaint scenes of horsedrawn carriages and women with parasols, let alone his biblical tableaux. “The artist no longer needs a particular starting point in nature,” De Stijl cofounder Piet Mondrian asserted in his 1919 treatise Natural Reality and Abstract Reality. “He spontaneously creates relationships in equilibrium—complete harmony—the goal of art.”
For van Meegeren, the abandonment of nature was heretical. He was adamantly opposed to all manifestations of modernism and blamed the “fingerpainting” of Vincent van Gogh for the “spiritual sickness” that had corrupted the Netherlands. For van Meegeren, art was technique. And the traditional techniques that he’d learned as a boy in provincial Deventer were not to be questioned.
There were two avenues open to a man of his persuasion in early-20th-century Holland. The first was to make art for a contemporary public as alienated from the avant-garde as himself. The second was to retreat into the past. Van Meegeren successfully traveled both paths.
In the Hague, where opulence counted for more than ideas, van Meegeren’s facile paintings found an eager audience. He was especially effective at infiltrating the elite precincts of the Liberal State Party, donating artwork for campaign posters in order to befriend members of parliament. Three years after he was lambasted in Het Vaderland by the critic Just Havelaar, Liberal State Party chairman H. C. Dresselhuys was quoted in the same newspaper claiming that van Meegeren was “one of our best contemporary artists.” By then, he’d cornered the market on flattering portraits of the upper crust. He had also found his way into middle-class homes with his saccharine drawing of a fawn—allegedly the pet of Princess Juliana—that decorated countless calendars and greeting cards.
Van Meegeren was well compensated for this work, generating an income that many avant-garde artists would have envied. But in the early 20th century, no modern painter could command prices comparable to the old masters. Picasso earned approximately $5,000 for a major canvas in the ’20s. By comparison, The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals sold for approximately three times that amount—and it was a counterfeit. The painter? Han van Meegeren.
Completed in 1922, the year of van Meegeren’s biblical exhibition at Biesing, The Laughing Cavalier was one of his two earliest forgeries. The other, called The Smoking Boy, was also signed Hals and, like The Laughing Cavalier, was the product of technical innovation as much as stylistic imitation. Both were created by altering the chemistry of oil paint to mimic the effects of aging.
The crucial breakthrough was made by a conservator named Theo van Wijngaarden, whose restorations often included the discovery of signatures suggested by customers. Like all forgers, van Wijngaarden was bedeviled by the slow drying time of traditional paints made with linseed oil, which have a tendency to dissolve in alcohol when less than a hundred years old. By the early 20th century, the so-called alcohol test was routinely used to detect fraud. So van Wijngaarden shrewdly substituted the linseed for a glue made of gelatin. The only trouble was that he lacked artistic talent: By traditional standards, he couldn’t paint.
1. As one of the animals in the Royal Menagerie, the fawn drawn by van Meegeren may technically have belonged to Juliana. As was so often the case in his work, attribution was a matter of opinion.
Then one day in 1920 he met van Meegeren through a mutual friend.
Even with a fast-drying medium, the forging of two oils by Frans Hals took time. The new paints needed to be perfected, the colors clarified, and the viscosity refined. A couple of period pictures by lesser artists had to be acquired. The original oil paint had to be scraped off the wooden panels, and the old images replaced with van Meegeren’s inventions, evocative of Hals yet not recognizably derivative. Artificial aging was needed to make the paintings look like they’d survived three hundred years, unrecognized and carelessly kept, before being rediscovered and brought to an expert for authentication—a public unveiling that had to be meticulously planned in its own right.
The expert van Wijngaarden chose was Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, an independent art historian (and former Bredius protégé) 2 who made his living authenticating old master paintings. Hofstede de Groot’s fees were based on a painting’s value, with rates ranging from thirty to one thousand guilders. On payment, he’d fill out a preprinted form that, given his sound reputation, was practically as good as a check in the bank.
The financial arrangements naturally gave Hofstede de Groot an incentive to see the best in paintings. Yet van Wijngaarden had also chosen him for another reason: The subject of The Smoking Boy had been selected especially for Hofstede de Groot, modeled on a painting in the Staatliches Museum Schwerin for which the expert had previously expressed admiration. Dating from 1626 to 1628, the Schwerin painting depicts a boy holding a flute, “evidently the same boy,” Hofstede de Groot obligingly recognized, as the one in van Wijngaarden’s find. Authenticating both of van Wijngaarden’s paintings without hesitation, he bought The Smoking Boy for his own collection, deducting his 1,000-guilder fee from the 30,000-guilder invoice.
2. By the 1920s, the two men were no longer on speaking terms, and even after Hofstede de Groot died, Bredius refused to enter the building housing his archives. Petty jealousies divided most of Holland’s authorities, fostering an environment of distrust vulnerable to manipulation.
3. Charging a fee for authentication was customary and made experts such as Hofstede de Groot and Bredius wealthy enough to be serious collectors in their own right. It may be no coincidence that so many new paintings were discovered in this era.
In August 1924, a brief article appeared in The Burlington Magazine, titled “Some Recently Discovered Works by Frans Hals,” in which Hofstede de Groot took credit for reclaiming four of the old master’s works from oblivion, including the two brought to him by van Wijngaarden. Theorizing that The Smoking Boydepicted “one of the sons of the painter” and dating it to 1625–1630, he wrote that “the picture has great attractiveness as a subject and marvellous handling of the brush, every stroke of which can be counted.” The Laughing Cavalier received equal accolades— “magnificent in the contrast of colours and in a perfect state”— though he was obliged also to comment that “curiously the authenticity of this picture... was doubted, and a lawsuit is actually pending before the Court at The Hague.”
The suit had been filed shortly after van Wijngaarden sold The Laughing Cavalier to a private collector through Frederik Muller & Co. in Amsterdam. 4 For unknown reasons, the collector had come to mistrust it and had it examined. The painting passed the alcohol test as expected but failed an even more basic diagnostic: Van Wijngaarden’s miracle paint was soluble in tap water. Muller refunded the 50,000-guilder cost and accused van Wijngaarden of fraud.
Though he’d feigned professional disinterest in The Burlington Magazine, Hofstede de Groot was outraged. By his reckoning, the allegations against van Wijngaarden were an indictment of his own judgment and thus a threat to his livelihood. Willingly led to believe that the sponginess of the paint was caused by van Wijngaarden’s cleaning, 5 he declared war on anyone who questioned his attribution. That meant an assault on science, especially after additional examination of the painting uncovered pigments first used long after Hals was dead, including zinc white and cobalt blue.
4. Van Wijngaarden’s codefendant was H. A. de Haas, an old school friend of van Meegeren they’d paid a commission to act as middleman.
“In the art of painting, the eye must be the benchmark, as in music it is the ear,” Hofstede de Groot wrote in a pamphlet titled Eye or Chemistry? privately published to publicize his views. “Neither the tuning fork nor the test tube will do.” He also took his case to the newspapers, including Het Vaderland, where van Meegeren’s name appeared—yet again—this time following rumors he might have painted The Laughing Cavalier. “[He] should wish that [he] could paint that way,” the connoisseur declared.
Still, van Meegeren and his partner were not rescued by Hofstede de Groot’s arguments or influence, but rather by his pride. In 1926, he settled the lawsuit by paying Muller the full 50,000-guilder price for The Laughing Cavalier. The painting entered his private collection, joining The Smoking Boy. There it stayed, secure inside his limestone mansion where nobody could call his authority into question.
“To hear almost every year of a newly discovered Vermeer may cause suspicion,” wrote Wilhelm Valentiner, director of the Detroit Institute of Art in the April 1928 issue of Art in America. “And indeed we can be sure that in the endeavor to discover unknown works by this rare master in recent times, paintings have often been associated with his name which cannot stand serious criticism. On the other hand it is still quite possible that for a number of years to come new Vermeers may now and then appear.”
5. Van Wijngaarden proved to Hofstede de Groot that the softness was caused by his cleaning chemicals by wetting another painting he claimed to have restored and showing that the paint became spongy in water. Naturally, the painting on which he demonstrated the authenticity of the Hals was also a forgery.
Valentiner’s cautious optimism was shared by many early20th-century scholars and curators, for whom Vermeer was as much an enigma as a revelation. Though admired by his contemporaries, who paid top guilder for his paintings, Vermeer was nearly forgotten by the early 18th century, when his name was omitted from Arnold Houbraken’s standard encyclopedia of Dutch artists, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. Some of his paintings were lost. Others embellished the royal collections of the Duke of Brunswick and King George III, mistakenly attributed to more famous artists such as Pieter de Hooch and Rembrandt. Only in the 1860s was he rediscovered, brought to public attention in a series of articles by the French historian Théophile Thoré-Bürger.
Able to find almost no information on Vermeer’s brief life, Thoré-Bürger dubbed him “the Sphinx of Delft” and intermittently referred to him as Van Der Meer. There was plenty to cause confusion, including the fact that in Vermeer’s era there was a Johannes Van Der Meer working in Utrecht, as well as two Jan Van Der Meers in Haarlem. “This devil of an artist must no doubt have had several styles,” he wrote. Nevertheless, he identified no fewer than seventy-two paintings by Jan Vermeer of Delft, on the basis of which he audaciously rated the painter “one of the foremost masters of the entire Dutch school,” in the company of Rembrandt and Hals.
At first, the articles had little discernible impact. In 1881, a collector named A. A. des Tombe bought The Girl with a Pearl Earring for a mere 2.5 guilders at an auction in the Hague. Seven years later, the New York banker Henry Marquand bought Woman with a Water Jug for $800—misinformed that the painting was by de Hooch—and donated it to the Metropolitan. Only with the turn of the century did Vermeer’s name live up to Thoré-Bürger’s promise. Bequeathed to the Mauritshuis Museum in 1902, The Girl with a Pearl Earring attracted crowds of admirers, enthusiasm matched at the Met when Woman with a Water Jug was included in a 1909 show on Dutch art. By 1916, Vermeer was in Lady’s Home Journal, the most popular magazine in America, with two reproductions of his paintings provided for clipping out and framing.
Pr ices reflected the growing popularity. In 1901, the industrialist Henry Clay Frick paid $26,000 for Girl Interrupted at Her Music. In 1927, the dealer Joseph Duveen bought The Lace Maker and The Smiling Girl for £56,000, well over ten times Frick’s expenditure and significantly less than Duveen charged the industrialist Andrew Mellon for them later that year.
Those two paintings were the focus of Valentiner’s article in Art in America. Though they’d already been authenticated by Wilhelm von Bode—director-general of the Prussian state museums and one of Valentiner’s early mentors—he enlisted them to clarify some misconceptions about Vermeer dating back to Thoré-Bürger. In 1928, the Sphinx of Delft no longer seemed so mysterious. “After one knows a few works by the master, the others are much more easily recognized than is the case with almost any other great artist of the past,” he wrote, noting that “newly discovered works by him frequently seem like puzzle pictures composed of pieces taken from different groupings in known paintings by him.” Six decades of connoisseurship had honed Thoré-Bürger’s job lot of seventy-two paintings to an oeuvre of just forty-one, including later additions such as those owned by Mellon.
6. The precise amount of money paid by Mellon is unrecorded by the National Gallery of Art, which was created with his collection, and where The Lace Maker and The Smiling Girl can now be found.
However, Valentiner’s prescription was more easily formulated than applied. Four years after his article was published, Abraham Bredius challenged the authenticity of six Vermeers, including one depicting “a very intriguing Vermeerish laughing girl,” in The Burlington Magazine. 7 As Bredius explained, it was not surprising “that the ‘fakers’ have found in the brief and broken catalogue of his works a happy hunting-ground for their activities.” Then he proceeded to show how real connoisseurship works.
The subject of his demonstration was a small painting called Conversation Piece, depicting a lady and a gentleman at a spinet, which he had recently authenticated based on careful comparison to known Vermeers. He noted that the gentleman was “leaning on the same musical instrument as may be seen in one of the National Gallery Vermeers” and that the lady wore “the large pear-drop pearl earrings which Vermeer loved to paint.” He also recognized the curtain, which had the same pattern as the curtain in two other Vermeers, including the Allegory of Faith, a late religious painting that he himself had discovered back in 1899.
Of course, the curtain had been included for his benefit, much as the grin on The Smiling Girl had been painted with van Bode in mind—mimicking the smile on a Vermeer in the museum of von Bode’s native Braunschweig—and much as the Hals Smoking Boy had been painted for the private pleasure of Hofstede de Groot. Moreover, they all had the same forger in common. Together with
7. When he wasn’t attributing paintings to masters, Bredius busied himself questioning the attributions of others, including several of Thoré-Bürger’s alleged Vermeers, regarding which Bredius’s opinion prevailed.
Mellon’s Lace Maker and a Portrait of a Girl with a Blue Bowauthenticated by Valentiner, they were made by Han van Meegeren.
It’s easy to look askance at these paintings today, to mock the experts’ naïve arrogance, and to deride their blindness to quality. All four of these purported Vermeers appear improbably stilted, and the figures lack the liveliness of The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Yet similar criticisms could legitimately be leveled against The Allegory of Faith, Vermeer’s overwrought depiction of a woman showing rapturous devotion to the crucified Christ with gesticulation befitting an opera diva. When Bredius discovered that painting in a Berlin art gallery, it bore the forged signature of the 17th-century portraitist Caspar Netscher and was believed by the dealer—not implausibly—to have actually been made by the history painter Eglon van der Neer. Bredius saw through both layers of misdirection and was not put off by the religious theme, at odds with all Vermeer’s known paintings at the time. Even aesthetically, nothing recommended it to him. (He deemed it “large but unpleasant.”) But he was confident enough in his attribution to buy it, and his confidence has survived more than a century of scrutiny.
In other words, the connoisseurship exploited by van Meegeren was the very basis of Vermeer’s art historical resurrection. The authority he abused may have been venal and vainglorious—and jealously hostile to scientific verification—but there was no substitute for it. Gullibility was the underside of open-mindedness.
On July 10, 1935, the first full-scale Vermeer retrospective opened at the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. In addition to 15 paintings attributed to the Delft master—lent by museums including the Metropolitan and the Louvre—were an additional 115 canvases intended to put his work in context.8 One room was devoted to Utrecht painters of the previous generation, including Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrick Terbrugghen, who had traveled to Rome in the 1610s and been influenced by the work of Caravaggio. Inclusion of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, as they were known, was not as expected as the appearance of painters such as Rembrandt and Hals, but they’d been enlisted to make a point. “They are related to the early works of Vermeer,” asserted the Boijmans director, Dirk Hannema, in an essay for the exhibition catalogue.
If not exactly obvious, the association of Vermeer with Caravaggio wasn’t completely outlandish or totally unprecedented. As early as 1901, Abraham Bredius had speculated in the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant that Vermeer was initially “influenced by the 17th Century Italian school.” The occasion for Bredius’s article was the attribution to Vermeer of two paintings even less likely than The Allegory of Faith. One was a mythical tableau called Diana and Her Companions. The other was biblical, titled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. For the next several decades, these two ungainly Baroque paintings beguiled art historians such as Roger Fry, who argued in the July 1911 issue of The Burlington Magazine that “Vermeer began with the ambition of painting ideal scenes in the grand style and in accordance with Latin ideas of design, and that he gradually resigned himself to the narrower scope and smaller scale of typical Dutch genre.”
The great game was to find works to fill the gap between this first phase and the period when Vermeer was painting more familiar works, such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring. In his 1911
8. Of the fifteen Vermeers, six were later attributed to other artists. Even at his apotheosis, the Sphinx eluded the experts.
article, Fry attempted to do so by attributing to Vermeer a large painting on the same mythical theme as the one attributed by Bredius, in this case showing Diana attended by a half dozen rather Dutch-looking nymphs. Hannema also had a candidate, which he included in his 1935 exhibition and catalogue. Titled Mary Magdelaine under the Cross and supported by the Christian iconography in two of the Bredius attributions, the painting was “attributed here, for the first time, to Vermeer.” As in the case of Fry’s Diana, though, the first time proved to be the last.
The Sphinx of Delft retained his secrets. Scholars were left to speculate about the impact of Caravaggio on Vermeer. “Perhaps tomorrow we will discover a thus far unknown painting, and next year another one, which will convincingly show this influence,” wrote the critic Pieter Koomen in Maandblad voor Beeldende Kunsten. By the time his essay appeared, half a year after Hannema’s exhibit opened, Han van Meegeren was working to ensure that happened.
Like the Caravaggisti, van Meegeren had traveled to Italy as a young man. Visiting Rome in 1921, he’d seen Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus at the Palazzo Patrizi and subsequently painted his own version, much as Terbrugghen had done three centuries before him. 9 The existence of an Emmaus by Vermeer was plausible, and the production of one by van Meegeren was feasible, especially since he’d parted ways with Theo van Wijngaarden and independently formulated a new painting medium impervious to alcohol andwater.
9. The Emmaus that van Meegeren saw, also seen by the Caravaggisti, was Caravaggio’s second version, painted in 1606, now in the Pinacoteca di Brera. Multiple 17th-century Dutch versions have been attributed to Terbrugghen. Though none are now indisputably accepted as his own, during van Meegeren’s lifetime several were, which may have influenced him. The 1921 version by van Meegeren was the one in his Kunstzaal Biesing exhibition.
Van Meegeren’s paint was unlike anything Vermeer had ever seen. The secret elixir was Bakelite, a forerunner to modern plastic, made by heating a mixture of formaldehyde and carbolic acid. At the time, costume jewelry was often made with Bakelite because the material was durable and could be dyed bright colors—qualities that recommended it to van Meegeren—but adapting it to oil painting was by no means straightforward. To achieve the characteristic translucency of Vermeer’s paints, van Meegeren dissolved the ingredients in turpentine, mixing in hand-ground pigments and volatile lilac or lavender oil.
It would not be inappropriate to call The Supper at Emmaus van Meegeren’s masterpiece, for it took all that he’d learned from fifteen years of forgery, lifted to a new level of sophistication. There would be no obvious gaffes, as there had been with the anachronistic pigments in his Hals counterfeits. He started with a period painting depicting the raising of Lazarus—because it was cheap, not because he had a sense of irony—scraped down to the white underlayer, and painted over with a picture that adapted Caravaggio’s composition to Vermeer’s palette. The canvas was then cooked for two hours in a large oven, the paint gradually baked to hardness at a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit. After applying a layer of varnish, van Meegeren pressed at the back of the canvas to bring through the natural craquelure preserved in the underlayer, accentuating the jagged pattern by rubbing india ink into the cracks. At last, van Meegeren added some artful damage, tearing the canvas and carelessly fixing the rip.
Abraham Bredius was eighty-two years old and living in Monaco when he first encountered the painting in the middle of 1937. The person who brought it to him was not van Meegeren but Gerard Boon, a Liberal State Party politician and former member of parliament of impeccable reputation. To explain the sudden emergence of the unknown painting, Boon repeated a story van Meegeren had told him about an old Dutch family living in Fascist Italy. The painting had been on their walls for generations, but their opposition to Mussolini compelled them to emigrate, and naturally the family name couldn’t be mentioned since sale of the canvas would require the utmost discretion. Though he didn’t know much about art, the anti-Fascist Boon was determined to help them.
For his part, Bredius was more taken by the painting than by the politics. Enraptured by his latest discovery, he was afraid that Emmaus would be bought by an American, like so many other Vermeers. To keep it from the avaricious Duveen and save it for the Netherlands, he decided that his colleague Dirk Hannema had to acquire it for the Boijmans. 10
Bredius’s letters to Hannema were even more hyperbolic than his write-up for The Burlington Magazine. He insisted that Emmaus was “Vermeer’s most important painting, surely his most beautiful work.” The price was an astronomical 520,000 guilders, toward which Bredius sportingly contributed his 12,000-guilder authentication fee. For his part, Hannema went to work on Rotterdam’s elite. He positioned the acquisition as a matter of civic pride. The biggest contribution—400,000 guilders—came from a socially ambitious shipping tycoon named Willem van der Vorm.
On June 25, 1938, Dirk Hannema unveiled The Supper at Emmaus as the centerpiece of a 450-painting survey of Dutch masterpieces from the 15th to the 19th century. Fully restored, the painting was magnificently framed and hung on a wall of silk brocade. Describing it as “the greatest attraction of all,” Time Magazine reported that the museum’s parquet floors had been specially carpeted to dampen the noise made by the constant crowds.
10. At least with regard to Duveen, he didn’t need to worry. Offered the painting for 70,000 pounds sterling, Duveen’s European agent Edward Fowles flatly turned it down.
More quietly, scholars analyzed details such as the pointelle to decide whether the painting was among Vermeer’s earliest, as Bredius claimed, or represented a later return to religion when the artist was fully mature. Careful consideration was also given to Caravaggio’s Emmaus, with a thorough reappraisal by the art historian J. L. A. A. M. van Rijckvorsel published in the museum bulletin. “In contrast with Caravaggio’s loud realism, we respectfully offer Vermeer’s devout modesty,” she wrote. “After a comparison of both works, the greatness and the individuality of the master of Delft is ever more apparent.”
As the world prepared for war, connoisseurship was subsumed, and subverted, by nationalism. Bakelite was the least part of van Meegeren’s formula for faking biblical Vermeers. The active ingredient was politics.
Less than two years after “Masterpieces of Four Centuries” opened at the Boijmans, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam. Nine hundred people were killed. The unprovoked attack was followed by an ultimatum: Surrender to Germany, or the blitzkrieg would be repeated in Utrecht. Holland capitulated.
Away from the city center, the Boijmans was unaffected by the bombings. If anything, the occupation improved the fortunes of Dirk Hannema, who accommodated the invaders to augment his power; his loyalty to Germany was rewarded with charge over Holland’s state museum system. Yet few collaborators exploited the situation as unabashedly as Han van Meegeren. If he got even with the avant-garde, it was not in the guise of Vermeer. His comeback took form under his own name.
During the occupation, the foremost art authority in Holland was an administrator named Ed Gerdes. He ruled by fiat. Appointed by the Reich to run the occupation government’s Department of Art and Propaganda, he was responsible for making Dutch art conform to the Nazi aesthetics espoused by Adolf Hitler. As in Germany, Dutch modernists were banished as degenerate. Anachronistic realism was endorsed and promoted to the extent that it reinforced National Socialist ideology.
Gerdes did not have to look far to find van Meegeren, who was his neighbor in the affluent village of Laren. Nor did he have to give the painter much direction, for van Meegeren shared Hitler’s taste for cloying sentimentality, tinged with adolescent bombast or pubescent eroticism. Moreover, both men fetishized the past, perceiving the avant-garde as a betrayal of eternal principles by “madmen and swindlers” (as Hitler dubbed modern painters in Mein Kampf). Having failed to gain acceptance as an artist in turnof-the-century Vienna, Hitler took special care to avenge himself as Führer. Van Meegeren’s comeuppance on the avant-garde was the vengeance of a fellow traveler.
Praising van Meegeren for “understanding the new era,” Gerdes awarded him prestigious commissions, including a painting for the entry hall of the Dutch Labor Front, the quasigovernmental agency that drafted Dutch men to toil in Germany. Under the title Arbeid—the Dutch word for “work”—van Meegeren showed laborers building a National Socialist future, girder by girder. 11 Given that van Meegeren’s avant-garde rivals were forbidden to paint and could be conscripted at any moment, he could hardly have chosen a more loaded context in which to flaunt his success.
11. His symbolism is as overwrought as it is muddled. Inside the girders is a colossal Aryan head, which they appear to be imprisoning as it watches over them.
Gerdes also gave van Meegeren the high honor of exhibition in the Fatherland, where van Meegeren showed kitschy paintings on themes designed to appease the leadership. For instance, his 1942 canvas Mealtime at the Farm promoted the German cult of motherhood, showing a housewife surrounded by twelve children, her selfless bequest to the Aryan race. (Her husband was omitted, evidently having already been sacrificed on the battlefield.) Exhibited in five German cities, including Osnabrück and Stuttgart, as part of an exhibition of contemporary Dutch art, Mealtime helped to support the German delusion that their Dutch neighbors were their political allies and racial kinsmen. The painting was fraudulent without even being counterfeit.
N evertheless, Mealtime at the Farm was technically more competent than another series of pictures van Meegeren was making around the same time. Painted in the style of Supper at Emmaus, they had almost the quality of forgeries of forgeries, each more slapdash than the last.
The first was a Head of Christ, painted with the same gaunt face, limp hair, and hooded eyes as Jesus in Emmaus. Purchased by Rotterdam shipping magnate Daniël van Beuningen—Willem van der Vorm’s archrival—the Head was rumored to be a study for a lost Last Supper that was found as promptly as van Beuningen’s 475,000-guilder payment cleared. On the advice of Hannema, he bought the larger painting as well, paying 1.6 million guilders and housing it in a specially built chapel. Van der Vorm in turn bought a painting depicting Isaac blessing Jacob. The resemblance of Isaac’s face to Christ’s is striking—hooded eyelids apparently running in the family—and the table over which Jacob bows his head is set with the same jug and platter as in Emmaus, evidently also inherited by Jesus from his holy ancestors.
By the time van Meegeren had Vermeer rendering Christ’s feet being washed, the quality had fallen low enough to give even Hannema pause. As usual, brought to market indirectly to protect van Meegeren’s identity—this time through an old school friend— The Footwashing was fronted by the de Boer Gallery in Amsterdam, which offered it first to the great Vermeer admirer Adolf Hitler. Rebuffed by Führermuseum curator Hermann Voss, who had the rare gumption to question the attribution, de Boer approached the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, rousing interest by intimating that a sale to Hermann Göring was imminent. In short order, the museum raised 1.3 million guilders, 400,000 donated by van der Vorm.
The line about Göring wasn’t quite a lie. Göring had been in the market for a Vermeer since 1938, when he coerced the Austrian branch of the noble Czernin family into selling The Art of Painting shortly after the Anschluss. The Austrian Monuments Office intervened before the Reichsmarshall could take possession—and gave the painting to Hitler. Göring was likewise blocked from acquiring The Astronomer, seized from the Rothschilds for the Führermuseum with the capture of France in 1940.
Göring redoubled his efforts with the occupation of the Netherlands. He took control of the Goudstikker Gallery in Amsterdam after the Jewish owners fled Holland. He installed his personal banker, Alois Miedl, as director and had Miedl send him the complete Goudstikker stock of 1,100 paintings. None were by the master of Delft. And then his fortunes changed in 1943, when the Goudstikker Gallery was offered a newly discovered painting titled Christ and the Adulteress. From the hooded eyelids to the wine jug—not to mention the monogram—the painting looked every inch a Vermeer.
A price of 1.6 million guilders was negotiated. The painting was freighted to Göring’s estate, given pride of place. But he wouldn’t pay until the seller revealed where the masterpiece had come from. 12 Miedl queried the middleman, Petrus Rienstra van Stuyvesande, a director at his Amsterdam bank as beholden to him as he was to Göring. The line of authority could not have been clearer. Rienstra van Stuyvesande responded that he’d been asked to sell the Vermeer by a man he’d recently met through a real estate transaction, the Nazi painter Han van Meegeren.
Hermann Göring was arrested by American soldiers on May 8, 1945, the day of Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies, as he fled his Brandenburg estate for the Austrian border. Among his personal possessions were six of the most valuable paintings in his collection, including Christ and the Adulteress.
By then, the Netherlands had been liberated, Alois Miedl had escaped to Fascist Spain, and a man named Joseph Pillar, a lieutenant in the Dutch Resistance, was investigating the Goudstikker Gallery, which he believed to be a front for a German espionage ring. Pillar did not have any evidence to support this claim, nor did he have an official mandate for his inquiry. In the postoccupation Netherlands, there was no clear line of command. Pillar had jurisdiction over Goudstikker because he’d been the first to get there.
As Pillar searched the Goudstikker records, he found references to Hermann Göring. He saw that the Reichsmarshall had purchased a Vermeer through Miedl and that the source was Han van Meegeren. Though not exactly espionage, conducting business with the enemy had been expressly forbidden by the Dutch government in exile. Even trading cigarettes with soldiers counted as treason; van Meegeren had pawned the Dutch patrimony to the man who’d occupied Holland. On that basis, and Pillar’s assumption that the painting must have been stolen from a church or museum, Pillar imprisoned van Meegeren on May 29.
12. Göring strongly suspected that the painting had been stolen. Some scholars believed that the Catholic convert Vermeer had been commissioned to paint his biblical series for a schuilkerk, a secret church—Catholicism was illegal in Protestant Holland when Vermeer was alive—and that the paintings still belonged to the hidden chapel. Though Göring surely didn’t care who’d owned the painting before him—having already plundered half of Europe—his previous difficulties with Vermeer may have made him cautious that someone else was held responsible in case he was questioned.
Over the next several weeks, van Meegeren was questioned about the sale and the source of his Vermeer, but he would not speak. At last, Pillar lied that Miedl had been captured and planned to testify against him. Van Meegeren cracked. “You idiots!” he shrieked. “You fools! I sold no national treasure to the Germans! I sold no Vermeer! I sold a van Meegeren! I sold a Vermeer forged with my own hands!”
At least that was the outburst attributed to him in the Saturday Evening Post, published a year and a half later and repeated ever since in tales of van Meegeren’s mistreatment and revenge. The true content of his confession to Pillar will never be known, except that it was enough to convert his worst enemy into his foremost ally: to make a man who risked his life fighting Nazis into the veritable ghostwriter of van Meegeren’s hagiography.13
The transformation was all the more extraordinary, given that Pillar’s investigation had already uncovered van Meegeren’s friendships with the Dutch Nazi elite. Van Meegeren had even published a deluxe catalogue of his work with text written by the fanatical Nazi poet Martien Beversluis. On July 11, 1945, the Dutch resistance newspaper De Waarheid revealed that a copy of his book, Teekeningen 1, had been found in Hitler’s private library, inscribed “to my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren.” The following day, persuaded by van Meegeren that the dedication had been forged by an SS officer currying favor with Hitler, Pillar sought to neutralize the Waarheid article by publicly disclosing the astonishing story van Meegeren had confided in him. “Driven into a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-too-meager appreciation of my work,” wrote van Meegeren in a sworn statement, “I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world had never seen before.”
13. The scholar Jonathan Lopez persuasively argues in The Man Who Made Vermeers that the attraction was psychological, that van Meegeren vicariously gave Pillar the satisfaction of getting even with Göring. If so, Pillar was hardly alone in his psychological projection.
In trouble as he was just then, conning the Dutch museums might not have counted for much, but defrauding Göring reckoned as positively heroic. And van Meegeren’s glory reflected on Pillar, lending authority to his self-appointed role as head of a sui generis paramilitary unit obscurely titled Field Security.
Yet van Meegeren’s apotheosis was not instantaneous. Two different factions challenged his narrative. On the one hand, De Waarheid rejected his dubious explanation about the inscription in Teekeningen 1, which in any case unequivocally attributed to him Nazi-era paintings such as Arbeid; from the Waarheid per- spective, he was a collaborator, regardless of whether he’d hoodwinked Göring. On the other hand, experts such as Hannema were unwilling to concede that they’d been tricked. Hannema based his case on The Supper at Emmaus, which most scholars concurred was by Vermeer and which clearly belonged to the same series as Christ and the Adulteress.
Of course, Hannema was a known collaborator who’d been stripped of his titles and shipped to an internment camp after the German surrender, whereas De Waarheid had unimpeachable moral authority in postwar Holland. Even a Resistance lieutenant stood little chance of trumping them in their own sphere. So Pillar deflected attention from Teekeningen by focusing on The Adulteress.
Van Meegeren’s forgery claims would have been easy enough to test. (He’d told Pillar that he had painted The Adulteress over a battle scene that he hadn’t bothered to scrape away; his confession could have been verified with a single X-ray.) Instead, Pillar orchestrated a media spectacle worthy of Joseph Goebbels. Ordering an enormous canvas, he had his ward counterfeit a brand-new Vermeer in front of witnesses.
For two months in the Goudstikker Gallery attic, van Meegeren toiled on The Young Christ Teaching in the Temple, once more reprising a subject from his Biesing show, using the same visual and chemical formulae that he had on each painting since Emmaus. Journalists and photographers were invited to observe his progress, enticed by a story they found hard to resist. When the painting was completed, the New York Times ran a two-page spread with three pictures of van Meegeren painting, melod ramatically writing that while he was at work, “it was said that he was ‘painting for his life’; unable to produce this seventh ‘Vermeer,’ immediate sentence, perhaps death, would have been his fate.” Of course, his artistic genius prevailed. “Experts have hailed the picture as magnificent in parts,” reported the Illustrated London News, reassuring readers that van Meegeren had taken care to “prevent the picture from being taken for a Vermeer in the future” by including a Bible in the scene as an intentional anachronism.
Against this picaresque, De Waarheid’s earnest reporting didn’t stand a chance. There were countless collaborators but only one Han van Meegeren. Though the ad hoc authority of Pillar’s Field Security had provided van Meegeren’s version of events with underlying legitimacy, endless repetition in the media and by the public made his story the accepted reality.
The first and only exhibition of van Meegeren’s seven biblical Vermeers was in the Fourth Chamber of the District Assize Court in Amsterdam on October 29, 1947, when the artist was tried for forgery and fraud. The mini-retrospective—which the New York Times aptly noted “would have been the delight of any museum a few years ago”—was but one of the factors that made the trial unorthodox. The courtroom was overcrowded with spectators, and the combined sound of newsreel cameras in the press box was enough to remind one journalist of machine guns. Reporters climbed on chairs. People in the balcony laughed and cheered, overwhelming the presiding judge’s efforts to maintain decorum. The trial completed what Joseph Pillar had started. The van Meegeren case emerged as theater.
The testimony especially has the scripted quality of stage dialogue. When a team of chemists presented data demonstrating that the paintings had been made with Bakelite, van Meegeren archly praised their work: “I find this research extraordinarily clever. Almost as clever as the painting of Emmaus itself.” When the judge asked whether he admitted to selling his forgeries for high prices, he responded as if on cue: “I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.”
Consistent with the comic tone was the farcical plot, that van Meegeren could prove his innocence only by establishing his guilt: Only conviction for forgery would acquit him of selling his national heritage to Göring. His work for Gerdes and his inscription to Hitler didn’t suit the comedic tone and went unmentioned in the courtroom. Thus, his true collaboration with the enemy never entered the official record. Nor was his past with van Wijngaarden explored. That, too, would have distracted from the zany story line in the Fourth Chamber and detracted from its simple moral.
Lest the moral be missed, Irving Wallace laid it down for readers in the Saturday Evening Post: “The knowledge and integrity of many experts, upon whose judgments museums and private collectors were dependent, and of some critics, upon whose opinion the layman was dependent, stood on trial,” he wrote. Even if he’d committed fraud, van Meegeren was not perceived as the real culprit.
Nevertheless, he was charged and sentenced. That much was required. On November 12, the District Assize Court ruled that his wealth be confiscated to compensate the Dutch state and the two Rotterdam tycoons and that he serve the minimum allowable term of a year in jail. The term began in 1948, but not before van Meegeren delivered the final punch line: He died of heart failure on December 30, 1947.
For the experts and critics, the verdict and consequences were more ambiguous. Conveniently deceased before the trial, Abraham Bredius was universally condemned as a fool, while the few experts who had not been tricked took the opportunity to gloat. Most noisily, the Duveen agent Edward Fowles publicly released a telegram he’d secretly cabled to Joseph Duveen after seeing Emmaus in 1937: Picture a Rotten Fake. When his story was picked up by the New York Herald Tribune, no mention was made of the suspect Vermeers that Duveen had sold Andrew Mellon.
On the other hand, Dirk Hannema refused to accept that Emmaus was a fake and spent the rest of his life trying to establish its authenticity with funding from Daniël van Beuningen. Though no credible scholars took Hannema’s research seriously and he no longer had an official position at the museum, The Supper at Emmaus remained on exhibit at the Boijmans—with no mention of who’d painted it—until Hannema’s death in 1984.
The unlabeled Emmaus was a fitting tribute for Han van Meegeren, who’d shattered the authority that made him without fostering alternatives.