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Victims of Vermeermania

1.

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.”1

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”2—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.”3 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.4 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 first in the series of biblical fakes by Han van Meegeren, a Dutch portraitist reputed to have dabbled in forgery from an early age. It is still on display at the museum, but now clearly labeled as a forgery.

This is the painting people tend to think of with dismay when the subject of Van Meegeren’s fakes comes up. It is impossible today to see how anyone could have thought of it or its successors in the series as Vermeers, with their untypical subject-matter, their hideous gaunt faces, and their heavy-lidded eyes. And so we are liable to resort to the theory that a forgery speaks to its age in a way that only becomes visible later.

We ought to remember, however, that the Supper at Emmaus was only on show in Rotterdam for a couple of years before it was taken away for safe storage, along with other treasures of Dutch museums, eventually ending up in limestone caves near Maastricht, transported under cover of a foggy night for fear of Allied strafing. While Europe was at war, a chain of reasoning could hold which argued that Vermeer, supposedly a convert to Catholicism, had painted a series of religious works, possibly for some “hidden church,” some place of private Catholic devotion. Such were the paintings then coming to light, and the attribution of all of them to Vermeer depended on the authenticity of the Supper at Emmaus.

But it is striking that the moment the war ended, this chain of evidence came apart as well. Confidence tricksters always like to rush their victims or put them under some form of pressure, which affects their judgment. The war and the Nazi occupation of Holland provided this sort of pressure. As soon as both were finished, the deception was revealed in a matter of weeks.

By ancient tradition, the crimes of forgery and treachery have always been closely associated—something that Vermeer’s maternal grandfather and uncle found out when they were involved in a scam of counterfeiting coinage. The two principals in that affair were interrogated and beheaded in 1620, after Vermeer’s grandfather, under protection of a safe conduct, had given evidence in their trial. His uncle too spent time in prison. This happened a dozen years before Vermeer’s birth.

When the German occupation of Holland collapsed in 1945, Han van Meegeren, who had sold one of his fake Vermeers to Goering, faced serious charges of collaboration with the enemy. The plea that he had himself forged Christ and the Adulteress, the painting in question, was supposed to mitigate the offense, and indeed it did so in the eyes of the general public, who were tickled by the thought that Goering, the man responsible for the destruction of Rotterdam, had been royally swindled by a cunning Dutchman. Strictly speaking, however, as Jonathan Lopez argues in The Man Who Made Vermeers, fake or no fake, the selling of a supposed Vermeer to Goering was a prime example of “exploiting Occupational circumstances to enrich oneself,” something the Dutch government-in-exile had declared to be grounds for imprisonment.

Van Meegeren could pose in court as a swindler of the Nazis, and make a bid for the status of folk hero. No such option was available to Dirk Hannema, who was not only revealed to be another of Van Meegeren’s dupes. He was also marked down as a shameless collaborator, and spent time in prison with others of his kind; they were occasionally taken out and paraded around the streets with pieces of potato in their mouths, as a sign of their disgrace.

The case against him was bad. Lopez records that he had been installed by the Germans as chief of the Dutch museum system and had taken to signing his correspondence with “friendly National-Socialist greetings,” and that he had “to his everlasting shame, presided over the only direct transfer of artworks from the Dutch State collections to the Reich.” Without wishing remotely to exculpate him, one might add that these transfers had an element of exchange to them: Hannema probably told himself that he was sending out second-rate Dutch paintings and receiving some good examples of German art in return, and that this counted as wise diplomacy.

Culpable ignorance is a key charge against people like Hannema. He was not, it would seem, a fascist and an anti-Semite, like Van Meegeren. He was quite capable of writing to the authorities when a Jewish art historian was taken to a notorious transit camp on the way to eventual death, asking that the man be allowed to continue his important research and be given use of the camp library. (As if there were such a library.) He was obsessed with his museum, for whose development (including the building one sees today) he had been largely responsible. He was good at tapping the wealth of the Rotterdam industrial elite (in the manner of an American museum director), bad at dealing with the city council, and—fatally for his good name—happier when handling the occupying authorities.

Born in 1895, Hannema had been a very young man when he became director of the Boymans in 1921, and in 1945 he still had almost forty years to live with his disgrace. He was numbered among the fout, the people on the wrong side. Throughout the rest of his life he was routinely ostracized. And yet he was accommodated successively in two castles or manor houses by the province of Overijssel, where he housed his own private collection and made it available to the public.

I visited the second of these, Het Nijenhuis, not long ago, and on the way was able to buy a copy of one of the strangest products of Vermeermania, Hannema’s booklet publishing his own collection of “Vermeers.”5 These were not Van Meegeren forgeries. They were Netherlandish paintings from Hannema’s own collection which, in his isolation and disgrace, he began to attribute to the master. It seems that, like the slaves in the film shouting “I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!,” the paintings on Hannema’s walls called out to him, one by one, in the lonely winter nights, “I am Vermeer! I too am Vermeer!”

They don’t look at all like Vermeers, but nor, for that matter, do all Vermeers. The Edinburgh Christ in the House of Martha and Mary doesn’t look like a Vermeer, although its signature has been accepted as genuine. The Diana and Her Companions in The Hague doesn’t look like the other two Vermeers in the same room, and it is noticeable, if you wait and watch what the Mauritshuis visitors actually do, that, for ten people who spend time looking at the Girl with a Pearl Earring, about one turns around to examine the View of Delft ; and for every ten who examine the View of Delft, about one goes on to look at Diana and Her Companions.

Certainly the Girl with a Pearl Earring is currently the most famous Vermeer, but when it appeared at auction in early 1882 it was attributed to an unknown master. The man who recognized it as a Vermeer was Victor de Stuers, a prominent cultural official, the brains behind the Rijksmuseum. He urged a friend, A.A. des Tombe, to bid for it, trusting that he would be the sort of man to leave it to the state, which indeed he did. He had been able to buy it for two florins and thirty stuivers (about $200 in today’s dollars), largely, no doubt, because it didn’t in those days look like a Vermeer.

Hannema’s Vermeers include The Penitent and Impenitent Thieves Being Led to Golgotha, a vigorous study in men’s back muscles and buttocks (now hanging in Zwolle, attributed to a Flemish painter, Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen); Belisarius Begging (depicting a man on a chair or throne, certainly no beggar, gesticulating for some reason); a group portrait supposed to show Vermeer with his wife and two children on a balcony (more likely an aristocratic couple on a country estate, with a peacock); and A Fish on a Brown Earthenware Platter. This last painting, admirable in its way, so enchanted Hannema that he couldn’t at first decide whether it was by Goya, or Rembrandt, or Carel Fabritius, or Vermeer—four of his favorite painters.

  1. 1

    Ce Vermeer nous a rendu fous. Mais nous l’avons ressuscité.” See Frances Suzman Jowell, “Thoré-Bürger and Vermeer: Critical and Commercial Fortunes,” in Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, edited by Cynthia P. Schneider, William W. Robinson, and Alice I. Davies (Harvard University Art Museums, 1995), p. 125.

  2. 2

    Marcel Proust, The Captive (Random House, 1981), p. 185.

  3. 3

    Albert Blankert, John Michael Montias, and Gilles Aillaud, Vermeer (Rizzoli, 1998), p. 177.

  4. 4

    Blankert’s catalog (see previous footnote) allows thirty-one paintings, with a further four described as problematic.

  5. 5

    D. Hannema, Over Johannes Vermeer van Delft (Heino: Stichting Hannema–De Stuers Fundatie, 1972.) It is still on sale in the museum at Zwolle, where the modern part of the Hannema collection is hung.

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