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Vermeer’s Fakes

  7 
The most famous forger of the 20th century showed the world seven fake paintings made "as Vermeer". Bible stories — why not? The great artist of the past could easily conceive them! He even could entrust this subject to Meegeren, his follower, having learned about his reverence and skill! The artist believed and painted. The fakes were bought by museums and brought Meegeren £ 20 million.
He could not achieve the glory he dreamed of during his life. In love with the art of the great painters of the past, he felt himself alien and unnecessary in the present. The artist was never able to come to terms with the art of his time, which he considered absurd. He even had the courage to attack such "pillars" of contemporary painting as Picasso. All his life, the artist strove for the stately beauty of images of bygone eras, but his work remained unrecognised. Therefore he preferred the glory of a criminal to a poor and joyless life, and he rightfully earned the title of the Greatest… forger of painting of the twentieth century!
— Young man, you should not even reach for the art of the old masters! You are in different leagues with them and the genius of the great Vermeer! Such daubers like you must stay in the kindergarten! Away, get away from the canvas! There is no place for you in the great art of painting!

For a moment, Hans thought he was about to pass out. Or to pounce on this aged grumbler and strangle him slowly, with pleasure… After all, this venerable Dr. Abraham Bredius mocked the young unrecognized artist who seemed to strive for competing with the great painters of the past so leisurely, so delightfully! The old prude was unusually outraged by this fact, and he tried to drown the "young talent" and moderate his agility with all his might. At the same time, he sincerely believed that he wished the young artist well.

Hans van Meegeren himself did not think so, but what could he do? The elderly art critic, who was already almost eighty, the director of Mauritshuis, one of the most respectable museums in Holland, whose opinion and authority were indisputable, undoubtedly ruined him as an artist, accusing him of lack of creative independence. He also announced to the whole world that his canvases were worthless, without mincing words, lavish of derision towards the young ambitious painter.
While Hans van Meegeren wanted to commit suicide at these moments.

The most famous forger of the 20th century, Hans van Meegeren (10.10. 1889 — 30.12.1947) forged 7 paintings "as if by Vermeer". Among them are Christ at Emmaus and The Last Supper, its second version, as well as Study of the Head of Christ, The Blessing of Jacob, The Washing of the Feet, The Woman Taken in Adultery, Jesus Among the Doctors. The fake paintings were snapped up by leading Dutch museums and brought Meegeren £ 20 million.

Not old, almost a master


Hans strove for the fine art of painting since childhood. Despite the discontent and abuse of his practical father, who was a true tyrant and tore the drawings of his "unlucky son" to shreds, the boy drew more and more. His father wanted Hans to become an engineer or an architect, and this fool always hung around in the studio of his painting teacher! Finally, the father seemed to win, and a compromise was found: young Hans went to Delft to study architecture. And there he still became known as an artist. The recognition of his skill came with his painting, Interior of the Church of Saint Lawrence, and The Deer is still reproduced in many textbooks on drawing. Architecture wasn’t also left aside: the building of the rowing club, designed by Meegeren, can still be admired today, it is a valuable cultural monument. Ah, the talented and ambitious young man who could not stand any criticism dreamed of the glory and brilliant future, which seemed so close!

The rowing club building, designed by Meegeren, has survived to this day and is considered a valuable cultural monument.

Mixed misfortunes


However, things went wrong for some reason. In the beginning, everything was fine — fame came to him, his paintings were sold, he had his students. However the artist was let down by his too obstinate character and… craving for classical values in art.

Meegeren, who adored the great artists of the past, could not come to terms with the painting of the new time. He never accepted painting by artists such as Picasso, he attacked his contemporaries who painted in a similar manner, wrote critical articles about them, and he was close to fights in public places. The same war was fought against critics who glorified new trends and formed "new stars", discovering the talents of the new time. But in this battle, there could be no winners: the strange lone wolf was simply trampled.

The vengeful art critics declared their "enemy" a reactionary and mediocrity: he allegedly had no his own vision or style, this Meegeren was only capable of imitating the old artists. And the worst enemy of Hans the retrograde was precisely Abraham Bredius, who considered Meegeren’s striving to be on par with Rembrandt and van Dyck a blasphemy.

The artist was broken down. His reputation was destroyed. He tried to drown out his feelings of the hope collapse in alcohol, drugs and carousing with his mistress actresses. But sometimes revenge not only destroys, but also disciplines: the idea that came to Meegeren’s violent head completely sobered him.

Paintings signed by Meegeren

The flash of insight

His plan was insane and dictated by the despair of unrecognition. Since his own creativity is discredited forever, why shouldn’t the artist create an "unknown masterpiece" of a famous creator of the past, for example, Vermeer? Jan Vermeer ideally suited to the new unrecognised genius among all the old artists: a vague biography, a lot of gaps, including his early work. Why not "fill" them? At the same time, he threw some firewood into the furnace of Vermeer’s riddles: why did the artist draw so few religious subjects?

At this point, Hans sighed and thought. The idea was great, but its implementation was almost impossible! While the more tempting was the challenge: Vermeer was not without reason recognized as a great artist. His paintings, albeit in mundane, everyday subjects (a woman pouring milk from a jug, a girl flirting with a dandy in a big hat) carried such penetration, light, warmth and tenderness, his colour palette was so inimitable that it would be a real triumph for the artist to paint a picture indistinguishable from Vermeer. Who can compare with the brilliant painter of the great past? And Meegeren could not resist this devilish temptation.

Authentic Vermeer’s paintings: Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) and The Milkmaid (1658)

Authentic Vermeer’s paintings: Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) and View of Delft (1660/61)

Is it easy to make a fake?


Well, let’s get started. The task follows: to fake a painting three hundred years old. There are a lot of difficulties! In the 17th century, there were no synthetic dyes, and to get minerals for making paints was hard, even if you ask the fairy tale gnomes… Moreover, you must instruct them about the exact shades: the picture must have the same palette of colours as in Vermeer’s paintings, whereas it is almost impossible to fake such an exclusive. You need to paint on a base painting from the same era, not a restored one, in the original stretcher. The image must be removed, so that not to damage the already dilapidated canvas. And the ready canvas needs to get aged, dried until the formation of a "lunar landscape" of craquelures, thin cracks filled with the dust of centuries. And these are only technical details, while the picture still needs to be painted so that no one can distinguish it from the real Vermeer!

Hans van Meegeren, The Washing of the Feet (1941) — one of the artist’s forgeries, passed off as a painting by Jan Vermeer

The hard labour of the forger

Yet Meegeren took up the matter. For four years of hard labour, he seemed to be obsessed with struggling to implement his idea, not allowing anyone into his studio. Even sitters, as they were potential spies! He experimented with paints and succeeded to unravel the secrets of the old artists. For example, the artist got black from coal, which he obtained by burning young grape shoots. For twelve thousand guilders (a lot of money then!), he bought a small packet of amazingly pure azure of exactly the same shade that can be seen in the paintings of the great artists of the past. And he had much pains to find brushes made of real badger wool — artists used them in the past!

Afterwards, it came to "cracking" the old-new masterpiece: according to his technical drawings, Meegeren built an electric furnace in his basement, and carefully "baked" the picture in it until the desired zigzags appeared. After the painting was finished, Hans covered it with a thin layer of Chinese ink, and then with varnish again. This is how the "dust of centuries" appeared. It was rather vexing to see wonderful clean colours fade in the varnished picture, but he had to do it — the patina of antiquity should have appeared! As a result, in 1937, after seven months of hard labour, Vermeer’s new masterpiece, Christ and the Disciples in Emmaus, was ready and waiting for the admiration of the supporters of the theory of Vermeer’s Sun painting caused by his alleged visit to Italy and seeing Raphael’s paintings!

Hans van Meegeren, The Last Supper (1940/41) — the second version of the first fake Vermeer, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (1937)

Revenge is a private matter!


Meegeren wanted to take a good revenge, so he entrusted the assessment of his masterpiece to the same Bredius. And this cunning fox was caught! The 83-year-old man so desperately wanted to become the discoverer of the new Vermeer that he forgot about logic, requests, additional research, and only followed technical canons. However, the art critic investigated everything very carefully, from the painting manner to the nails in the picture. But Meegeren also managed to take everything into account! And since X-ray analysis was not yet applied, the art critic succumbed to bare facts and recognized the Christ in Emmaus as the original by Vermeer! Moreover, it was a religious painting, whereas before that, it was believed that Vermeer almost didn’t have religious paintings… The success was overwhelming, the picture was recognized as one of the best, the Dutch were proud that they had a priceless work, and Meegeren received his first millions for it… His internal artist was avenged!

Abraham Bredius in his youth — a once well-known authority in the world of painting and the enemy of Meegeren, whom he took revenge on in such a peculiar way, irrevocably ruining his reputation as an expert on the painting authenticity.

The beautiful life


Until then, Meegeren could hardly make ends meet and vegetated in deep poverty. Since that time, he began a new, bright and rich life. Due to the fact that he was directly involved in the restoration of the country’s cultural funds, the artist restored his reputation and began to enjoy honour and respect. The work on other fakes was also going on as well — all the technologies and legends of the invention of "masterpieces" had already been tried on gullible art critics. And the fabulous money received by Meegeren allowed him to start his own business. He bought not only his own home — a palace furnished with royal luxury, — but also began buying houses and hotels, forming his own real estate business. His vanity was finally satisfied.

Bills from the past

He could not stop, although he understood that each new fake increased the likelihood of his exposure. He faked not only Vermeer, but also Peter de Hooch, ter Borch. However, it was Vermeer, from which his fame and wealth began, that caused his death…

The Woman Taken in Adultery painting, created in 1941—1942, became his most fatal picture. Trying to be on the safe side, Meegeren convinced the reseller not to resell the painting to the Germans under any circumstances. After all, cooperation with the Nazis was a very serious crime, and the artist understood that every such case would be investigated after the war. But greed won out in the world of fakes, and this "Vermeer" went to Goering’s secret storage. And at the end of May 1945, employees of the Dutch state security service investigated the origin of the priceless painting discovered at the Nazis and came to Meegeren. The visitors made a formal visit, asking him to explain where and how the sold painting was obtained. And this is exactly what the artist could not say.

On 29 May 1945, Hans van Meegeren was arrested on charges of collaborating with the Nazis, and this crime was a capital offence… And Meegeren could not stand it. After a month and a half of the investigation, his sensational statement was made: all the paintings by Vermeer that he sold were painted by himself. And his, Meegeren’s paintings hang in places of honour in the most famous museums in the country.

The shock was so tremendous that a legend appeared that Meegeren was the author of all the famous paintings by Vermeer! While Meegeren, who had to prove the veracity of his confession at all costs in order to avoid death, suggested painting a fake "masterpiece" in front of the judges. This is how the last painting by Vermeer, Jesus among the Doctors, also called Young Christ in the Temple, was created. And before the artist put his last stroke, it became clear that Meegeren told the truth.

The last Meegeren’s Vermeer-like fake, which he painted during the trial — Jesus among the Doctors (1947)

The fatal triumph


At the last session of the court, for a moment Meegeren thought that his dream of fame had completely come true. The courtroom resembled his personal exhibition, which he had dreamed of all his life. His paintings hung on the walls, and he himself was greeted by the admiring rumble of spectators. Still, the affairs took a completely different turn. Now Meegeren looked almost like a national hero who deceived the enemy by selling him fake paintings and buying genuine paintings by famous artists of the past with this money.

Hans van Meegeren in the courtroom

The court’s verdict was very mild, Meegeren was handed to a one-year sentence. Perhaps he would not have been in prison this year either, since a petition for clemency was filed. And the famous forger would enjoy the laurels of the triumphant, if the inevitable fate didn’t intervene.

Exhausted by alcohol and drugs, Meegeren’s body could not withstand the shock and after a month of imprisonment, at the age of 58 (30 December 1947), he died — his heart failed.


Meegeren’s paintings are still kept in museums around the world.


This is how the life of the most famous falsifier of the 20th century ended, in the roar of applause. With his fakes, he brought people no less aesthetic pleasure than the genuine Vermeer. The most famous painting by Meegeren, Christ in Emmaus, is still in the Boijmans Museum, in the same room as Picasso. The rest of the forgeries were also spared; they became the property of history and are exhibited from time to time. And those who believe in the soul reincarnation are still convinced that in the body of the unrecognised artist of the 20th century, the soul of the great Vermeer received its second chance for life and creativity.