Tuesday, July 6, 2010

To be near Vermeer is to be mere veneer

What do you think of this Vermeer. It's a fake, done by a man named Han Van Meegren, a Dutchman. Here is the story. Van Meegren was a portrait painter and modestly successful painter who specialized in working in the techniques of the Dutch Masters of the 1600's. He was attacked by the critics of his time who were enthralled by the new modernist movements like cubism. He wrote a magazine article attacking them back and that REALLY ruined his reputation. Van Meegren decided to get even by fooling the experts and making some forged paintings by Franz Hals and Vermeer. He put years of study and research into the methods and materials of that age and developed a way to add a hardener to his paints so he could bake them, making the paint appear to be 300 years old. The painting above is one of his best forgeries. I don't know if the color in this image is true, I think the original is more golden like a real Vermeer.

This Van Meegren forgery was hailed by the critics as a great Vermeer. Its hard to believe that they were taken in but here are some of the reasons why. The roster of who the old master were has an element of fashion to it. Guilio Romano used to be one and is no longer. Vermeer really didn't make the list till about 1900. He had long been known for a small painting in the Louvre called the lace-maker, but most of his paintings had "acquired" more valuable signatures such as Terbruggen. There are only 30 some Vermeer and new ones were still being attributed to him, or found and added to his tally. Below is another fake.

Scholars speculated the Vermeer, nicknamed the "Sphinx of Delft" because so little was known about him, was trained in Italy. A few of his early pictures had religious themes are not the interiors that we think of as Vermeers. Often Van Meegren mad pieces that would have seemed to come from the period after his Italian studies and before the interiors. The scholars were expecting these paintings to be discovered and when they surfaced it was easy for them to believe they were "right". Most of this happened during the second world war and the real Vermeers of Europe were hidden away so the originals weren't around for comparison and everything was in upheaval and confusion in the art world. Things were popping up all over Europe as wealthy Jews in Germany and others who needed to escape the war sold their collections.

There was little chemical analysis done on paintings in that day, most of that was developed a generation later, so by cracking his paintings, rubbing ink down into the craquellure and painting on actual 17th century canvas, after removing some third rate painting from it, he was able to make a pretty convincing pastiche.

Above is an example of a problem that forgeries have. They date. This piece looks like the 30's. That made it look particularly "good" in that day, but also made it date. It is difficult for an artist not to use the type of faces and hairstyles that are popular in his own time. Below is a real Vermeer for comparison.

Now here comes the good part of the story. Van Meegren was making a fortune. At one point he owned 50 houses! He made about the equivalent of 25 or 30 million dollars in today's money. But one of his forgeries was sold to the Nazi Luftwaffe General, Hermann Goering. After the war Goerings collection was discovered by the allies. Some research tracked the painting back to Van Meegren and he was arrested and charged with treason. Selling cultural treasures to the Nazis was treason and carried a possible death penalty. Van Meegren confessed in court to having made the paintings and proved it by making one in the courtroom and in his prison cell under the watchful eyes of the jailers. He was convicted of a lesser crime and served a year. Here he is making a painting in front of the court.

By this time he had grown sloppy and the forgeries were less convincing. The one above is, of course, dreadful. After his release Van Meegren came to be seen as a sort of trickster hero and was one of the most popular Dutch painters of his day. He received a lot of portrait commissions to be painted in the old Dutch master style. He died soon after the war in 1947.


Connie said...

Wonderful post! I read a book about van Meegren years ago, but you brought out so many things I didn't remember. I look forward to your posts each day.

Robert J. Simone said...

Wasn't Van Meegren the subject of a book called "I Was Vermeer". The book was based on interviews with him after he got out of prison. I used to have the it. Read a fair percentage of it but since donated it to a thrift store because I needed space on the bookshelf.

Dave Lebow said...

Very informative and interesting. Didn't the experts also analyze the forgeries pigments and find cobalt blue was used inadvertently? Since it didn't exist in Vermeers time it was a red flag as well.
Your blog is wonderful I highly enjoy it.
And I enjoy your paintings a well.

Peggy Kingsbury said...

How interesting! So glad we haveyou to do all this research. I can't wait to read your blog every day.

Susan McCullough said...

Great post Stape- sounds like Van Meegren was quite a character and led a very interesting life. From a historical perspective, have there been a large number of artists that art critics have attempted to ruin? I'm guessing that the artists that were ruined would be hard to track since they just faded away? Or, do the critics really have as much power as they did in the case of van Meegren?

mariandioguardi.com said...

I love this stuff!!! My good side wanted to be an art conservator my ugly side wanted to be a forger. But my bad side won out and I became a painter.

An interesting aside: remember the Hiltler diary from the 80's? That case was broken because the forger used a mechanical pencil. Mechanical pencils weren't in use back then. The document expert noticed that the graphite's width remained constant and never wore down.

billspaintingmn said...

Sometimes I wonder about the originality of an art piece. I saw a painting at the museum from the 1500's and the red paint on the clothes looked like it was painted yesterday.(too brilliant)
Some conservators are better than others.
I sometimes wonder if the money I'm spending is real, lately the cashiers use a marker to test it, Either I look suspicious,or there's
more counterfieting than we hear about.
Do you have an opinion about the Shroud of Turin?

sharprm said...

Would he have been able to use models or might they have recognized themselves and given it away?

willek said...

Van Meegren would not have proven himself innocent with that picture if I was on that jury.

kev ferrara said...

I think Van Meegren was the real deal. The world could use a few more Vermeers, even if they're not by him.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks,I am trying to write down everything a painter should know and that story is on the list.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is one of several books on Van Meegren. I read another book on him in the 70's.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes I believe that was one of his errors .

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't really do much research, I am doing such brief synopsis's that it is more like writing for the baseball card industry.

Stapleton Kearns said...

In some worlds the critics have a lot of clout. They ignore the entire existence of what I do though. I don't miss them and have somehow managed to get along without their help.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I do remember the Hitler diary.My bad side wanted to be a teacher.I ended up a painter.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have no n worthwhile opinion on the shroud of Turin but I am deeply suspicious of the Piltdown man.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I suppose if he drew lots of models and the selected judiciously he would be alright. I hadn't thought about that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Very good. I think I would concur.

Stapleton Kearns said...

His quality dropped precipitously.As I said; To be near Vermeer is to be mere veneer.

wwwalker said...

The best part of the story is that Van Meegren was paid in counterfeit English pounds, each side laughing at how clever they were.