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.
He was mad when it came to the subject of Vermeer. He was one of a small group of doomed believers who kept alive a campaign on behalf of Van Meegeren’s forgeries long after the forger himself had denounced them. But on other subjects he was capable of perfectly sane judgments. Perhaps his madness whispered to him that he could redeem his reputation by offering to Holland so many rediscovered masterpieces. And so he sat the decades out, surrounded by photographs of the royal family (proof of his loyalty and devotion to the Crown), among his works of art, in a baroque moated castle, amid tall, rare trees and ancient fishponds, shrieked at by his peacocks and whispered to by his Vermeers—an internal exile, doomed to his beauty spot at the end of its pavé -cobbled drive.
Nobody enjoys being swindled, and the grander you fancy yourself to be, the less you like it. But what you do about it varies from victim to victim. When P.A.B. Widener, the Philadelphia magnate, learned that his three Vermeers had been omitted from the catalogue raisonné then being published by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot,6 he wrote, early in 1908, to ask the author to correct what he assumed was an oversight. But de Groot, the great authority, was not reassuring, especially after he had visited Widener’s 110-room residence, Lynnewood Hall, and made a preliminary investigation of its art collection. The scale of the disaster was shocking, and de Groot called in the cream of the world’s experts to support his findings: Bernard Berenson, Roger Fry, Max Friedländer, Wilhelm von Bode, and William Valentiner were all consulted, and the conclusion was that the majority of the ninety-three paintings that Widener had bought from the dealer Leo Nardus were fakes or otherwise worthless.
Widener was fearless in his outrage, ready to confront the swashbuckling, mustachioed champion swordsman and chess master Nardus and to face any humiliation that the scandal might bring. But his lawyer, John G. Johnson (another great Philadelphia collector), who had been responsible for introducing Nardus to Widener, urged caution rather than a costly public vengeance, and himself effectively subsidized the partial compensation an unrepentant Nardus was induced to offer.
It was after this affair that prominent American collectors took measures to put an end to the old European sport of making fools of them by flogging them dud masterpieces. They began to insist on signed opinions from experts. As Lopez pointed out in an interesting and original article last year (drawing attention to this Nardus episode for the first time in English), it was in 1912 that Berenson struck his deal for a 10 percent commission from the dealer Joseph Duveen. “Today,” argued Lopez,
this relationship is sometimes viewed disapprovingly from a moral standpoint, but it is worthwhile to note that Berenson and Duveen colluded to make money selling genuine masterpieces, not false ones à la Nardus.7
Widener himself is a good example of a collector who, having been once fooled, and having learned his lesson, put the experts (de Groot himself, Valentiner, and Berenson) to work for him. He had eight years left to live, and in that time he assembled one of the greatest old master collections ever. He even bought a Vermeer, the Woman Holding a Balance now in Washington.
But the experts are not, were not, infallible, and they continued to be fooled in the 1920s by fake Dutch masters. All the great scholarly names—Abraham Bredius, Bode, de Groot, Valentiner—were taken in at some point, and it is good to remember when reading popular books of the kind under review (in which they naturally appear looking foolish or somehow compromised) that they were also great scholars.
Bredius, for instance, on whose recommendation Hannema bought the Supper at Emmaus, was the first person to unlock the Dutch notarial archives (which had been hitherto treated as confidential, even though the information they contained was centuries old) in order to bring to light the documentary evidence about seventeenth-century painters hitherto known by name or initials alone. The lists of Dutch artists’ works which Hofstede de Groot undertook to revise for his great catalogue raisonné had been made by an English dealer, John Smith, in the 1820s and 1830s, and needed a complete overhaul. The establishing of a canon of Rembrandt’s oeuvre, over which these leading scholars took contrasting positions, started a complex argument which continues, unresolved, today.
If you were writing a study of the most glorious achievements of Dutch art history and museology—the books, the catalogs, the archives, the art collections, the museums, the libraries—all these names would feature among the heroes. It seems dreadfully unjust that they should be better known for their lapses than for their achievements. They helped define the canon of Dutch art, and they helped create the great galleries that present the Dutch artistic heritage in Holland today. Some of the painters had been revered for a long time. Others—notably Vermeer and Frans Hals, both of them promoted by Thoré—were relative newcomers, and it is not entirely surprising that in the 1920s both artists were being forged for the American market.
These earlier forgeries are different from what we think of as Van Meegerens, although it appears that they may well be by his hand. First studied as a group by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., they are technically similar. Instead of using the traditional materials of oil painting, which in a newly painted work will tend to dissolve in alcohol, these fakes employed a gelatine-based medium.8 They were nonsoluble in alcohol but, it turned out, vulnerable to water, a drop of which would immediately sink into the paint layer and create a raised blob. The paint surface of a genuine old master oil painting will be insoluble in water.
The gelatine-based fakes are unlike Van Meegeren’s later work. Judging from photographs, they are much more comprehensible as attempts at Vermeer’s or Hals’s style. You may agree with the late Otto Kurz that a glance at a photograph of a bogus Hals, the little round Laughing Cavalier, “will be sufficient to convince every unprejudiced observer that the picture is nothing but a crude and superficial imitation which, inexplicably, deceived a very great connoisseur” (a reference to Hofstede de Groot). You may accept that
with Frans Hals it should be observed that, broad though the strokes of his brush may be, every single one of them sits exactly in the right place and is highly expressive of light, shape, or character. The mere lavish use of broad impasto, combined with one of Hals’ familiar subjects, does not yet constitute an original by his hand.9
But still you can see at once what the forger was getting at.
Lopez argues that several of these gelatine-based fakes were made by Van Meegeren. The circumstantial evidence is rather convincing. Stylistically, however, it comes as a surprise to be told that The Lacemaker (a fake Vermeer certified by Wilhelm von Bode in 1927, bought by Duveen, and sold to Andrew Mellon) has anything to do with Van Meegeren: in reproduction, at least, it is too refined and plausible. Arthur Wheelock, tracing the origins of two “Vermeers” that had entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in 1937, was convinced that they “originated in the workshop of Theodorus van Wijngaarden.”10
Lopez contacted the family of this dealer in improved and confected old masters, active in The Hague in the 1920s, and found out from Van Wijngaarden’s granddaughter that Theo himself, though engaged in the trade of deceptive restoration, had lacked the skill to produce the sort of painting that fooled experts for decades.11 But Van Meegeren was an associate of Van Wijngaarden’s, and Lopez believes that he must have been responsible for this group of forgeries. I think we could keep an open mind about Van Meegeren’s part in these works, while accepting that they are unlikely to have been painted by Van Wijngaarden.
What is clear from Lopez’s account of these years is that there was a thriving business in forgeries, operating through London and The Hague, and requiring accomplices to create false provenances in order to get fakes approved by the experts. Van Meegeren, not unsuccessful as a portrait painter but with a taste for high life, was part of this circle. He seems to have been always an unpleasant artist. Lopez tells us that the religious works he was turning out in the 1920s under his own name (strikingly similar to the later Vermeers) were “exquisitely painted.” They certainly do not look anything of the kind in Lopez’s photographs.
At the same time, Van Meegeren founded and contributed to a magazine called De Kemphaan, “The Fighting Cock,” in whose pages he attacked the modern art of his day (from Van Gogh to Mondrian and Kees van Dongen) as the “art-Bolshevism” of a “slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,” and, Lopez tells us, invoked the image of “a Jew with a handcart” as a symbol for the international art market. In other words, he was already spouting the language of Nazi cultural policy and propaganda, although in the context of Dutch, rather than German, nationalism.
Van Meegeren installed as editor of De Kemphaan a Catholic chauvinist, and later fascist, by the name of Jan Ubink, and in one of the most interesting sections of his book Lopez expounds the connection between Catholic cultural politics and the biblical series of Vermeer forgeries. It was Ubink’s contention that the famous Golden Age of seventeenth-century Dutch culture was only partly to be explained by the rise of Calvinism. The Protestant merchant class “did not represent the whole nation, but merely a part of it, and by no means the largest or most important part.” To outward appearances the Golden Age “appeared to be Calvinistic and modern but inside, it retained a profoundly medieval orientation.” The literary hero of Ubink’s historical view was Joost van den Vondel, the poet and playwright sometimes thought to have influenced Milton. Born a Mennonite, Van den Vondel had converted to Catholicism, satirized Calvinism, and pleaded for religious tolerance.
Vermeer, as mentioned earlier, is supposed to have converted to Catholicism too, on marrying a Catholic wife. Although there is no positive record of his having done so, the evidence points in that direction, and it is hard to see the Metropolitan Museum’s Allegory of Faith as anything other than a programmatically Catholic painting. This key work, a quintessential expression of baroque religious sensibility, had been discovered by Abraham Bredius with a false signature. It had been successively on loan to the Mauritshuis and to the Boymans Museum between 1899 and 1928, before entering the collection of Colonel Michael Friedsam in New York.12 It is amazing to me that Bredius had owned this work, Hannema had displayed it on his walls, and both of them had forgotten, ten years after it had left Holland, what Vermeer’s religious art looked like.
It looked baroque, but perhaps this thought was not entirely welcome to people like Van Meegeren or Jan Ubink, to whom the essence of Dutch Catholicism would have been its medievalism, its rootedness in ancient tradition and the spirit of the volk. If Van Meegeren’s wartime forgeries strike us as repellent today, a part of what is disturbing us is their hidden rhetoric on behalf of a fascist fantasy of Dutch national identity. They look nothing like Vermeer. They do look exactly like Van Meegeren’s own religious paintings from the 1920s. (See the illustrations on page 80 in Lopez’s book.) It is as if Van Meegeren were giving it his best shot, as if he were pleading with us from the depths of his horrible personality, saying: “I am Vermeer. I too am Vermeer.”
Of the two books under review, Lopez’s is in most ways preferable. He is not always at ease writing in a popular style, and I find his work more exciting when it is more soberly presented (as in his Apollo articles). But he has added a good deal to our understanding of the story.
Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell is a genial performance, with some surprising moments, as when he tells us that
Goering refused to outfit Germany’s long-range bombers with navigational instruments…although the military advantages of such equipment were not in dispute.
If this were true, the Germans would have had a hard time bombing, for instance, Coventry. But Dolnick has misunderstood his source. He hasn’t looked at much Dutch art, one feels, since he refers to “the now nearly forgotten Caspar Netscher,” and his historical account of Vermeer is feeble.
But he covers a good deal of territory and he makes things sound exciting: “I’ve spent the last five years,” he tells us, “prowling the back alleys of the art world, in the company of crooks and con artists and the detectives and sleuths who try to unmask them.” When he wasn’t “prowling” with “sleuths” he had assistants to “cajole lost articles” and “unearth” “countless deep-buried gems.” In other words, he got people to look things up for him. The result is a nice enough light airport read, but it doesn’t advance the subject.
“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. ↩
Marcel Proust, The Captive (Random House, 1981), p. 185. ↩
Albert Blankert, John Michael Montias, and Gilles Aillaud, Vermeer (Rizzoli, 1998), p. 177. ↩
Blankert’s catalog (see previous footnote) allows thirty-one paintings, with a further four described as problematic. ↩
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. ↩
This was a multivolume critical list of paintings by leading seventeenth-century Dutch artists, published in German and English, 1907–1928. Vermeer featured in the first volume. ↩
This story was told in full for the first time by Jonathan Lopez, in “‘Gross False Pretences’: The Misdeeds of Art Dealer Leo Nardus,” Apollo (December 2007), p. 82. ↩
See Wheelock’s essay, “The Story of Two Vermeer Forgeries,” in Shop Talk. ↩
Otto Kurz, Fakes: A Handbook for Collectors and Students (Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61. ↩
Wheelock, “The Story of Two Vermeer Forgeries,” in Shop Talk, p. 271. ↩
The two Mellon Vermeers, The Lacemaker and The Smiling Girl, had been authenticated in the 1920s, accessioned by Washington in 1937, reattributed to a “Follower of Jan Vermeer” in 1973, and only in 1978 demoted to “Imitator of Jan Vermeer.” In 1982 they were removed from the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Art and relegated to the Special Collection. At four and a half decades, their period of success far outstrips that of any of Van Meegeren’s acknowledged forgeries. ↩
Friedsam paid $300,000 for it. He bequeathed it to the Met in 1931. ↩