I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger
by Frank Wynne
A Real Fake
A review by Alex Danchev
This book is a study in the psychology of forgery, enfolded in a fabulous life story. It touches lightly on some large themes, but it is more case history, or curiosity, than muscular inquiry. Like an investigative reporter, Frank Wynne has done the legwork. Unlike so many of his protagonists, he does not parade as an expert. It is the restraint of his account that is impressive. Appropriately enough, I Was Vermeer is not what it seems. It is neither expose nor exposition. It is a moral tale well turned: almost a proverb. It is not new, but it is all true.
The book is centred on the life and work of Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), master forger. That very designation is a troublesome one. It does him an injustice, perhaps especially in his own eyes. His case is fascinating, first of all for his motivation, or self-image. Van Meegeren was not like other forgers; so he thought.
He was not cut out for hackwork. He had a profound appreciation of the old masters. He lived with them; in a sense he lived through them. He was a member of the same guild, part of the same tradition. He had an elevated conception of his artistic worth. He painted the pictures the old masters ought to have painted, the pictures we wish they had painted.
Van Meegeren was a man of many parts: a cheap crook, a congenital liar, a considerable painter -- a fantasist, an idealist, an artist recidivist. He was also cunning. His target or victim for this particular form of identity theft was the never-to-be-known artist who, as Proust had it, we have barely identified by the name of Vermeer. When van Meegeren began his career, in the 1930s, Jan Vermeer was recognized as a great painter, though not quite at the pitch of veneration he has attained since; but for an unconscionably long period -- most of his posthumous life -- he had been under-regarded. For the forger as rectifier, the unlicensed knight errant in the artists' lists, there was a historic wrong to be righted. More to the point, Vermeer's life was still something of a blank. His dates were known (1632-75); little else.
In the biographical gloom one fact stood out: the extant oeuvre was enticingly small. The total has varied over the years (an interesting phenomenon in itself) and now hovers around thirty-five paintings, nearly half the number accepted a century ago. Whatever the true figure, there was a deep longing for more; new Vermeers practically cried out to be discovered. Authentications make reputations. Nailing Vermeer, however, has always been a slippery undertaking, the dating and the attributing persistently vexatious, a forger's dream. But, a plausible narrative was ready to hand. Most Vermeers are mature Vermeers. "Girl with a Pearl Earring", "The Lacemaker", "Woman Holding a Balance": such images, painted most probably in the mid-1660s, define the painter, and define also a certain marque of old-master painting -- painting as moral act, in the words of one who followed in their footsteps. There is in addition a smattering of earlier work (the chronology is truncated), which looks rather different. But "middle period" Vermeer is conspicuous by its absence. How Vermeer became Vermeer remains a mystery. Between "Diana and Her Companions" (c1655-6), attributed for a while to Rembrandt's pupil Nicolaes Maes, and the exquisite refinement of "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" (c1663-4), or the moral authority of "The Milkmaid" (c1658-60), is a world we have lost.
Van Meegeren grasped the longing to find more Vermeers and played on it. It was almost as if he fulfilled a need. His success as a forger lay in a devilish combination of technical accomplishment and psychological insight, a marriage of craft and craftiness. After some successful trials, "The Supper at Emmaus", his first masterwork, was a middle-period discovery of marvellous ingenuity, instantly familiar yet also strange, neatly described by Wynne as a genuine 1937 Vermeer.
Taking Caravaggio's dynamic composition, van Meegeren simplified the elements to create a sense of tranquillity more proper to the Dutch interiors of Vermeer's mature period. A bright window on the left -- barely a luminous rectangle -- prefigures every Vermeer window in the decades to come. The colours are sparse and quintessentially his. The still life at the centre of the piece was the easiest: Van Meegeren had painted so many still lives in the seventeenth-century style that the sheen of the pewter plates, the glint on the empty wineglasses and the flash of light on the long neck of the porcelain jug were second nature to him. Where Christ's hand is poised above the bread to be broken, he added a burst of pointille -thick dabs of paint like scattered grains of light -a technique Vermeer first used in "The Milkmaid".
The experts were well and truly snared. Van Meegeren's Vermeer was authenticated by the formidable Abraham Bredius, the curator who is seen by Wynne as a kind of doppelganger of the forger, and bought by the impeccable Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam for 520,000 guilders ($5 million).
Van Meegeren forgot his original notion of revealing all and exposing the panjandrums of the world. Instead, he began to revel in his situation. Short order chefs-d'oeuvre rolled out of his studio. The tally of Vermeers rose steadily. The State Museum itself was fooled. So too was Hermann Goring. During the German Occupation of the Netherlands, the agents of the rapacious Reichsmarschall snapped up "Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery", a genuine 1942 Vermeer, for his personal collection. When the painting was recovered by the Allies at the end of the war, an investigation of its abbreviated provenance led straight to van Meegeren, who was arrested, not as a forger, but as a collaborator. The Dutch authorities believed implicitly that the painting was genuine. A national treasure, they concluded, had been sold to the Nazis.
No other explanation seemed to fit the facts. Van Meegeren was charged with treason. The only way he could save himself was to persuade the authorities that the Vermeer was not a Vermeer but a van Meegeren. For once in his life, he told the truth. He pleaded guilty to forgery. They did not believe him. So began the final act, full of ironic twists and turns, related with delicacy and economy by Wynne. His subject evolves from forger through collaborator to swindler --"The Man who Swindled Goring" -- his bid for greatness lost but his public image somehow restored.
I Was Vermeer is a skilful book, but not deep. Frank Wynne is a lucid introducer of the life and work but he sometimes takes economy too far. The encounter with the Nazis is rushed, and van Meegeren's "questionable politics" slightly skimped. The technical aspects of the subject are treated more compellingly by Paul Watkins in The Forger (2000), a novel set in Occupied Paris, which also traffics with the idea of "the good forger" pitted against the Nazi despoiler. And the towering work is curiously absent here: William Gaddis's gargantuan novel The Recognitions (1955), whose central theme is fabrication and forgery, and whose central character, Wyatt Gwyon, is modelled on van Meegeren. The Recognitions was belatedly recognized as a masterpiece. It is a profound meditation on the implausibility of originality (a phrase borrowed from Cynthia Ozick), and a penetrating re- imagining of the strange psychology of Han the man. It is a fundamental book, on the brief life of the forgery, on the "inherent vice" of the artist, on the fine sensitivity of the counterfeiter: "Even then they knew the value of art. Or of knowing the value of art. As Coulanges said to Madame Sevigny, pictures are bullion".
Alex Danchev is Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham.