Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2009
Jonathan Lopez The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008. 352 pp. Cloth $26.00 (9780151013418)
Thumbnail

In 2001 the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered as the very last work in its large, enormously popular exhibition Vermeer and the Delft School a small painting of a young woman seated at a virginal (a keyboard instrument of the seventeenth century). Presented without fanfare by curator Walter Liedtke and not included in the catalogue, this picture was familiar to specialist scholars: as the final image in Lawrence Gowing’s seminal 1952 monograph on Vermeer, the work had claims to authenticity, but has since encountered doubts. On public view for the first time in half a century, this tiny work sparked spirited debate among Vermeer scholars and aficionados.1

The reason for this debate? Of course, Vermeer himself holds special attraction—painter of roughly three dozen pictures, each suffused with manipulated luminosity and presenting an almost voyeuristic view into private domestic space inhabited by Dutch women of his native Delft. This is the stuff that spills over from academic discourse into bestselling novels and Hollywood movies. But another layer of intrigue and mystery also surrounds the painter—a scandalous trial that still haunts public memory from the years immediately after World War II. One group of attributed Vermeers, it was revealed, was successfully faked by a Dutch painter named Han van Meegeren, who was exposed after the end of Nazi occupation. The inevitable questions swirling around that little picture in New York in 2001 were amplified by the prior exposure of several celebrated but false Vermeer “discoveries” from the 1930s—each authenticated and praised by leading Dutch scholars and acquired by leading Dutch museums (Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, to its credit, still openly displays its own most famous mistake, a Supper at Emmaus).

To the life and nefarious work of van Meegeren, Jonathan Lopez brings the research skills both of a scholar and an investigative journalist together with the writing skills of a detective storyteller. Is this story worth telling? Does it hold surprises or new information for Vermeer scholars? Or does it illuminate current reconstruction of Nazi-era art acquisition and problems of provenance?

First of all, this is serious scholarship, with impressive command of Dutch vernacular as well as primary sources, both written and oral, detailed in notes and a full, useful bibliography. Lopez has clearly consulted with major curators, especially Liedtke of the Metropolitan Museum and Arthur Wheelock of the National Gallery. What must have been an indispensable and highly scholarly source, a Dutch dissertation by Marijke van den Brandhof published in 1979 (Een vroege Vermeer uit 1937: Achtergronden van leven en werken van de schilder/verfalser Han van Meegern, Utrecht: Spectrum, 1979), is duly acknowledged with an accompanying photograph; her sleuthing surely provided the breakthrough discovery of much of van Meegeren’s wartime collaborations with Dutch quislings, if not his earliest forgeries that began in the Roaring Twenties in The Hague.

Students of Dutch painting will find much material of interest here. Capsule biographies limn leading Rembrandt scholars: Wilhelm von Bode, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, and the pivotal figure of Abraham Bredius, whose crucial authentication of the Boijmans Emmaus provided the core breakthrough of van Meegeren’s forgeries into the public domain and Dutch national limelight. Yet to review this book for a scholarly journal such as caa.reviews poses dilemmas about material and focus. It is, after all, a professed biography of van Meegeren in his times, not a historiography of Dutch art history. For all of the valuable character sketches and professional activities of this trio of connoisseurs, one could still wish for more, particularly about Bredius, who is remembered simultaneously for his great publication of the paintings of Rembrandt in 1935 and his endorsement of Emmaus as an authentic Vermeer only a couple of years later. The young J.G. van Gelder, later the leading Dutch art historian at Utrecht, makes only a cameo appearance.

To a certain extent, the interested reader could be directed to recent studies of the emerging Rembrandt corpus, especially the monograph by Catherine Scallen (Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2004). Because of his focus on Vermeer, Lopez evokes but does not fully articulate the feeding frenzy for Vermeer as well as Rembrandt and other blue-chip old master painters, especially by American collectors such as Andrew Mellon and Peter Widener, through manipulative dealers, led by Joseph Duveen.2 A fascinating sidelight is the attention given to the less familiar Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York, amassed by Charlotte Hyde, who was duped into acquiring a Vermeer forgery, Girl with Blue Bow, as her most expensive purchase. The broader topic of collectors, dealers, and connoisseurs necessarily plays a supporting role in a book about van Meegeren, so the wish to know more does not constitute a criticism; however, much fascinating history about American collecting and the connoisseurs and dealers who abetted it still deserves a study. For example, one marvelous vignette by Lopez encapsulates the outset of this period, when Widener’s mansion at Lynnewood Hall was visited in 1908 by Hofstede de Groot, accompanied by Roger Fry, Wilhelm Valentiner, and Bernard Berenson, who collectively unmasked the fakes purveyed by an earlier corrupt Dutch dealer, Leo Nardus (36–37).

What Lopez really does bring out with his biographical spotlight is van Meegeren’s early shift from fashionable society painter in The Hague to specialist forger of Golden Age Dutch paintings, including Peter de Hoochs as well as Vermeers. Some of van Meegeren’s earlier forgeries cannot be proved to be his, though Lopez as connoisseur surely makes a strong case to link up some of the early Vermeer fakes bought in the mid 1920s by Mellon from Duveen (and later donated to the National Gallery).3 Lopez illuminates the early collaboration of van Meegeren with the disreputable “restorer” and forger in The Hague, Theo van Wijngaarden, who really launched this star pupil into independence and surpassing success as a master forger, and Lopez shows clearly that these fakes of Dutch masters extended through most of two decades.

Lopez shows how fabulously wealthy van Meegeren became, especially after he eliminated the middle man in his transactions; but afterwards he faced the difficulty of finding dupes to bring his canvases to dealers and collectors in the market. Following the artist’s career away from his works in his own name to life as a forger, Lopez traces with clarity the shifting material problems of forgery, moving from detectable gelatin glue to the (then) untestable early plastic of Bakelite as a medium.

What remains inexplicable to most current viewers of van Meegern forgeries is how they could have duped connoisseurs familiar with authentic Vermeers. Lopez gamely attempts to evoke period preoccupations, whether for the “Greta Garbo” hat in one fake sold to the Thyssens or for the evocations in the Emmaus of Teutonic character: the facial features of Jesus echo Dürer’s renowned 1500 Self-Portrait, and the communal meal among the apostles suggests volkisch sentiment.4 To my taste, Lopez is a little too pat about his explanation of a Nazified sentimentality of that familial gathering, a period eye that finds contemporary parallels in American Regionalism. At least as important for its authentication is the search by Bredius for both Caravaggist and Catholic influences in the putative “lost early works” of Vermeer, akin to his rare surviving early religious works.5 Van Meegeren intuited how Vermeer would have made more religious works.

Perhaps the most insightful and extended analysis provided by Lopez of how van Meegeren infused his paintings with consistency and sincerity concerns his Catholic upbringing and discomfort with modernist art in Holland since van Gogh. Such cultural conservatism could lead the artist to reactionary sympathies, expressed, for instance, in an obscure tract of the late 1920s. But van Meegeren also dedicated and sent to Hitler in 1942 a signed book of drawings. This work was found just before his trial in 1945, but was neglected, as Lopez makes clear, in the enthusiasm for the artist as sympathetic counter-cultural figure. The postwar Dutch public surely wanted to enjoy how the forger had fooled the arch-Nazi in his obsessive collecting (currently being catalogued by Nancy Yeide), in addition to fooling the “experts” in paintings acquired by both Rotterdam and Amsterdam museums.

The “endgame” of van Meegeren’s show trial is fully covered by Lopez. He sensitively profiles Joseph Piller, the former Resistance hero who was van Meegeren’s captor but then developed a curious sympathy for his prisoner afterwards. Meanwhile, the artist was allowed to paint one final work, Christ in the Temple, to show the consistency of his handiwork with both the Rotterdam Emmaus and the notorious Christ and the Adulteress sold to Hermann Goering for a colossal sum.

Both the reactionary cultural politics and the ongoing corruption and collaboration of van Meegeren are the real behaviors revealed by Lopez in this well-researched exposé. Along the way to “unvarnishing” the benign legend of this successful forger as a duper of Nazis and lovable scamp, Lopez reveals and profiles a series of villains in Holland, before the war as well as collaborating or profiteering during Nazi occupation. He offers a rare glimpse into the post-liberation chaos in the country. If an art historian might seek to learn more about individual collectors or scholars or dealers, The Man Who Made Vermeers contains much rich material and new knowledge—comprehensively documented, convincingly argued, and skillfully portrayed.6

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

1 Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets (New York: Routledge, 2009), 276–83, plate 13, is the most recent scholar to discuss this picture, which he accepts as an authentic “Vermeer” but with the proviso that he reattributes it to a putative second painter in the family, the artist’s daughter, Maria. In rehearsing its critical history, he also notes that the recent (2004) Sotheby’s catalogue entry detected the same bolt of cloth as the undisputed late Vermeer, The Lacemaker (Louvre, ca. 1669–70), and he notes that the current owner is Las Vegas hotelier Steven Wynn. See also Libby Sheldon and Nicola Costaras, “Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,’” Burlington Magazine 148 (2006): 90–97.
fn2. Still basic on Duveen is S. N. Behrman, Duveen (New York: Random House, 1952). A useful recent publication on Widener is Esmée Quodbach, “’The Last of the American Versailles’: The Widener Collection at Lynnewood Hall,” Simiolus 29 (2002), 42–96.
fn3. Arthur Wheelock, Jr., “The Story of Two Vermeer Forgeries,” in Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, Cynthia Schneider, William Robinson, and Alice Davies, eds., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1995, 271–75. The Duveen firm was later proud to declare and to document that it considered the Emmaus to be a fake, but neglected to recall that it had been duped a decade earlier, as Lopez points out.
fn4. Already in the late nineteenth century, there is a prehistory for seeing Dutch art as a cultural extension of German national character, exemplified by the notoriously racist book, Julius Langbehn, Rembrandt als Erzieher. Von einem Deutschen, first published in 1890. See Scallen, 348, n. 59.
fn5. Currently accepted early works with religious subjects include Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha (ca. 1654–55; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) and St. Praxedis (1655; Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection Foundation); the latter was discovered—and debated—only in recent years.
fn6. The Jewish Dutch dealer who was co-opted by Goering during the war, Jacques Goudstikker, is now the subject of an exhibition organized by Peter Sutton: Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker (Greenwich, CT: Bruce Museum, 2008).

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.