When I was thinking about what artist I wanted to devote my time and attention to, one name came to mind – Han Van Meegeren. Being a philosophy minor, I frequently get dragged into conversations about the nature of things by my philosophically oriented friends. Van Meegeren’s story was told to me by a friend who was investigating a question of what is art. It challenged my opinion of “good art” and forced to consider and evaluate works of art by looking beyond the name in the corner. After all, Van Meegeren is one of the most ingenious art forgers in history!
One of Van Meegeren’s biographers said that the Dutch was born to be a painter, yet he was born 50 years too late. Van Meegeren aspired to be an artist since an early age (he was born in 1889). He was particularly inspired by the masters of the Dutch Golden Age, the period in the seventeenth century when the Dutch at the front of the world’s cultural progress, and often mimicked their style in his works. In 1913, still a student, Van Meegeren won his first, yet prestigious, award for his beautiful watercolor, which you can see right below, called “the Interior of the Church.”
Interior of a Church - 1913
Van Meegeren had quite a successful start of his artist career in the Hague, the cultural center of Holland. His exhibitions were sold out; members of high social circles were asking him to do their portraits; he was often traveling around Europe to visit most famous museums. Below you can see a portrait of Van Meegeren’s first wife by his hand – it is over 30 inches in height!
Title unknown - around 1920 -1930
Here is his more popular drawing (and my favorite) by Van Meegeren that is not uncommon to see around Holland even these days – the Deer. Rumor has it he drew it when teaching a class, to impress his students.
However, Van Meegeren’s talent was never destined to mature and these are not the works he is now famous for. Van Meegeren soon broke under the pressure of admiration and popularity – he took to drinking and promiscuity, which had a great toll on his work. Not only that, but also his choice of artist style – conforming to the methods of old artists rather than the highly praised at the time styles of cubism and surrealism - earned Van Meegeren reproach and lackluster reviews from the art critics. Not able to withstand the pain and refusing to succumb to a fate of a regular portraitist, Van Meegeren left Holland in search of appreciation and acknowledgement. He returned to Holland in 1939, when the Second World War broke out in Europe and started earning quite a fortune by dealing in art.
Van Meegeren was not just a supporter of conservatism in his artist style – he was an outspoken anti-Semite, to the point of fascism. In 1945, after the liberation of Holland, it was discovered that Van Meegeren was selling famous paintings of Vermeer and de Hoogh – the artists that shaped the Dutch cultural history – to the Germans, a very high ranking officer Goering, to be exact. He sold him this work, that the officer later proudly displayed at his home.
Woman Taken in Adultery-1942
Van Meegeren was accused of being a collaborator with the enemy and it was death that awaited him at the end of the trial. It was then when Van Meegeren confessed that the works did not belong to the Dutch national treasures – they were of his own hand.
Below is a very famous painting called “The Supper at Emmaus.” For a long time, it was considered to be one of Vermeer’s best works; the peak of his Biblical phase. It’s a complex and a very captivating work - a very carefully balanced, calm scene reminds us of what we often see in Vermeer’s works. This painting, offered by Van Meegeren to the biggest specialist of the Dutch baroque art as a previously unknown work of Vermeer, was sold for what now would be over 6 million dollars. The same authority claimed that it was truly “a masterpiece” of Vermeer’s genius.
The Supper at Emmaus - 1936
Little did he know that it was not Vermeer, but van Meegeren who authored the painting, alongside a number of other Biblically themed works, which were also taken to be Vermeer’s. The confession at van Meegeren’s trial startled the world – the critics refused to believe him and forced him to produce a painting in the same style in front of the authorities. This is what he came up with.
Jesus Amongst the Doctors-1945
Yet, it was not this work, but a thorough chemical investigation of the paintings that revealed the truth about the forgeries. Van Meegeren was then sentenced to a year in prison for deception and fraud. His death followed soon afterward.
Van Meegeren truly hated modern art. He considered it childish and undeserving of true recognition. And it was the hostile reception of his chosen style by the critics that forced the forger to give up his name and pretend to be somebody else – and he perfected it. And he gained fame! Van Meegeren’s story may be unique, but the conclusions we could draw from it about how superficial and faulty the “evaluation” of art can be are valid even today. Van Meegeren attempted to find his niche in the world of art, but was rejected for not conforming to what was new and fashionable and accepted by the critics.
Lopez, J. (2008). The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc.
Meulenhoff, J. (1949). Van Meegeren's Faked Vermeers and De Hooghs. Amsterdam: Dr. P. B. Coremans.
Wynne, F. (2006). I Was Vermeer: the Legend of the Forger Who Swindled the Nazis. Edinburgh: Bloomsbury.