Victims of Vermeermania

Sometime after 1866, when a series of articles by Théophile Thoré in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts brought much of Vermeer’s heretofore misidentified work together, his reputation began to acquire the ability to drive men mad, or at least to inspire them to fatal loyalties and gross errors of judgment. This suited Thoré very well. He was a dealer as well as a clever connoisseur. He wanted to drive Vermeer’s prices up. He had been in the grip of the obsession himself, and now he wanted others to suffer what he had. “This man Vermeer,” he wrote, “he has driven us mad. But we have revived him.”

Proust’s obsession with the View of Delft, and his character Bergotte’s death throes in the presence of the painting, sinking in the gallery by the circular settee, repeating “Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall”—the choice of Vermeer as the consummate, exemplary artist, tormenting a man at the end of his writing career with a vision of what might have been—represents the new tendency in its benign form. At the malignant end we find stories of forgery, treason, and theft, played out against a background of war, looting, and genocide.

Vermeer before 1866 had never been entirely obscure as an artist, despite what people often say. At least two of his works, the View of Delft at the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum’s Woman Pouring Milk, have always been well known in Holland, the former being described in 1822 as “this most capital and most famous painting by this master, whose works seldom occur.” The latter painting, which was regularly praised throughout the eighteenth century, was singled out for mention by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1781. And Vermeer’s The Astronomer was engraved in France for the dealer J.B.P. Lebrun in 1784, and highly praised by him.

It is true that some of Vermeer’s other masterpieces, including The Art of Painting, which once graced Hitler’s walls at Berchtesgaden, spent a long time attributed to other artists (in that case Pieter de Hooch). But they appear to have been admired and valued under such aliases. And they seem always to have been taken care of. Thirty-something paintings are known today, and there are documentary references to a maximum of ten more. The inevitable conclusion must be that Vermeer painted rather little in his short life (1632–1675), and that most of his painted oeuvre has survived. This has given the forgers rather little room in which to operate.

Prominent among the victims of Vermeermania was the director of the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam, Dirk Hannema. He was the man who organized “Vermeer—Origins and Influences,” the first Vermeer exhibition, in Rotterdam in 1935, which included fifteen supposedly autograph paintings, about half of which were by Vermeer. And he was the man who in 1938 acquired the notorious Supper at Emmaus for the Boymans—the …

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Letters

Forger’s Justice March 12, 2009