Reviewed by Bob Williams
The Man Who made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren
by Jonathan Lopez
2008, ISBN 978-0-15-101341-8, $26.00, 340 pages
Jonathan Lopez is a writer for various publications. He lives with his wife, an art historian and critic, in Manhattan. This is his first book.
Vermeer, the number of whose paintings amounts to about forty works, was for a long time a neglected figure. Partly this was the result of so few works and the abundance of other, more spectacular painters. But Vermeer’s paintings are windows on an alternative and better universe, a universe in which men and women are more alive and objects quiver and pulse with a reality that has no match. All of this is bathed in a light that is temperate and palpable.
His forger was a clever man and gifted painter in his own right. The commonly accepted account of his career describes a Dutch patriot who painted a forgery to trick Hermann Goering, one of the chief hoodlums in Hitler’s gang of guttersnipes. At the trial held after the fall of the Nazis, he emerged as a kind of hero, the man who had revenged himself on the experts and who had bilked Goering of a record amount of money.
The truth is very different. A Dutch scholar, Marijke van den Brandhof, anticipated some of the facts that Lopez uncovered, but her untimely death prevented her from pursuing her research.
Han van Meegeren was, until he began to pursue a career as a forger, a very talented painter as a portraitist of the wealthy and the fashionable. He attempted a broader scope in his work and lost the acclaim of critics who saw it as a wrong turn. Although this embittered him, it was not true that he suffered anything more than what can beset any artist. His later claim that his forgery was an act of revenge was one among the many falsehoods that he used to manipulate the public. His skill as a painter of original works, in fact, diminished as he gave himself more and more to forgeries
The truth of Meegeren’s life shows that he began his career as a forger very early and that the Goering painting was the last of a series, not his single act of fraud. He was accomplished enough to sell through a network of shifty agents paintings that ended up in the most prestigious collections, many of them in the United States, a source of deep embarrassment to the purchasers and even more to the experts that appraised them as genuine.
Meegeren was a careful calculator and an inspired crook. When his forgery of a painting by Franz Hals failed to pass the expert, he abandoned Hals for Vermeer. He was not at first successful but he considered what his expert was looking for and supplied the demand.
We look at these works today and wonder how they could have fooled anyone. They are lifeless beside the real thing. But, as Lopez explains, we have lost the thread of the iconography of the time. He compares the forgeries with the painting style endorsed by the Nazis and they fall into place reasonably well. Meegeren also cleverly chose to forge religious paintings. Vermeer painted few of these and they are untypical in his works. Meegeren thus gave the world what it wanted. By couching his forgeries in the visual language of the time he furthered their acceptance. In a way – and a very uncanny way at that – he rewrote for a short time the history of painting.
Han van Meegeren was otherwise a handsome man of great charm. He was also a radical conservative and very susceptible to the doctrines of the Nazis. He was a collaborator in spirit and not the hero of his exploits although the temper of the time was willing and needed him to be a star of the postwar years. He was sentenced to a trifling time in prison for his forgery of the Goering painting, but he died of heart failure before he could begin his sentence. Lopez dryly remarks that in this he characteristically used perfect timing.
A wonderful book and perfectly done. There are over eighty black and white illustrations scattered throughout the text. One hopes for more books from Lopez.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places