Perfect lighting, smooth-licked canvases, and realistic play on light and reflection are all characteristics used to describe the artworks of Vermeer. The Dutch painter was considered one of the Old Masters of the Dutch Golden Age, with his art pieces coveted by many today and sold for tens of millions of dollars. The artist is well known for his purity in light and form, scenes that convey a sense of serenity, and a timeless sense of dignity. With the amount of prestige, honor, and glorification touted at Vermeer’s works, one would think his style would remain almost impossible to replicate/fabricate. But it was during the 20th century that an artist going by the name Han Van Meegeren would prove to fool the art critics of our world through this one-of-a-kind style of painting.
Han Van Meegeren was a Dutch artist who loved to study the works of the Old Masters (like Vermeer). He admired several Dutch paintings and wanted to forge an artistic path for himself as a child. However, his father wanted him to become an architect, so Meegeren studied architecture at Delft college in the Netherlands. Unable to ignore his artistic dreams, Meegeren eventually abandoned his architectural studies in 1913 and started attending classes at school in The Hague, where his artistic journey began to take flight. He won a few medals for his art piece and even had the chance to hold his first public art exhibition in 1917 at the school. The show did extremely well to the point where he got an exclusive invite to join the Dutch society of painters and writers called the Haagse Kunstkring. However, despite all his good fortune in the industry, Meegeren would begin to face criticism for his artworks’ lack of creativity and originality.
As Meegeren began to establish himself as an artist to some degree, art critics began to comment on his pieces for being simply decent or adequate but nothing spectacular. His style was plagued with criticisms of no originality, and these critiques would take a toll on Meegeren’s status as an artist. He would start to write letters and articles to these critics out of anger. But eventually, this anger would shift him towards a path of revenge to fool those art critics who had humiliated his reputation. If his artworks were deemed uninspired and plain, he would create an art piece so perfect and magnificent that it could rival those of the Old Masters (including Vermeer). This focus started Meegeren’s obsession with studying Vermeer’s artworks to a tee. He perfected Vermeer’s art style down to the paint brushes he used to even the aging cracks that appeared on the canvas. He utilized a synthetic resin called Bakelite to help him forge artworks that would appear old and dried if ever tested. And in 1937, Meegeren debuted his first art forgery of a Vermeer to the world called “Supper at Emmaus.”
The forgery was a success and caused such a stir in the art world that even renowned Vermeer expert Abraham Bredius acknowledged the piece as a genuine Vermeer. Bredius even went so far as to say that the work was one of Vermeer’s finest, proving to Meegeren that he was as good of a painter as one of the masters. And this one event would catapult Meegeren into his forgery career, continuing to gain money through his claims of discovering a new original Vermeer piece. However, his foolery would come to an end in 1945 as the post-war Dutch government charged him with conspiring with Germany after an investigation of art transactions done by high-ranked Nazi authorities. One of the Nazi leaders, Hermann Goring, was an avid collector of artwork, famous for taking precious paintings from well-renowned artists throughout Europe. When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Goring purchased a Vermeer work recorded as being sold by Van Meegeren through a third party. Meegeren was then put on trial for selling out a Dutch national treasure to the country’s enemies.
But rather than being remembered as a traitor to his country, Meegeren decided to confess his forgeries and prove his innocence as a patriotic hero. His defense was that he sold the works to the Nazis as a trick to save his country’s national treasures. Knowing full well that his possessions were fake Vermeer’s, he sold them to the Nazis, trying to make sure that they wouldn’t be able to get their hands on an actual national treasure. This claim, at first, seemed ridiculous as many art critics could not believe that someone could perfectly forge Vermeer’s works. Moreover, many experts did not want to accept that one mediocre artist had duped them. However, Meegeren proved his innocence in jail by painting a new forgery called “Jesus Among the Doctors.” With a guard staying on watch at all times to see his progress, Meegeren worked day and night tirelessly to prove his innocence. And within six months, he was dropped all charges of conspiring with the enemy with only a one-year sentence for forgery.
With all this to say, to this day, Meegeren is still regarded as a mediocre artist that once fooled the world into believing his works were Vermeer’s. “His art pieces” are forever marred with the words “forger” or “imitator” that had no originality or inspiration to them. But can we really say that Meegeren was a “mediocre artist” and not a “genius”? His artworks, at some point, fooled the entire art industry as one that was “authentic” and “real.” He developed a process so meticulous that he could make artworks that appeared to stand the test of time. And even his painting process was so secretive that he needed to come up with images from his mind. Meegeren could not trust others to keep quiet about his forgeries, so he often worked in his studio (located in a cave) alone with no model or inspiration to look at. He regularly had to come up with poses and paint human faces from his memory/imagination. Yet despite his inaccessibility to a proper reference, he could still make a believable painting with decent proportions and lighting. That, in itself, should be considered genius and creative as it’s not easy to perfectly forge artwork (especially human figures) without a proper reference or knowledge of the human body.
So, despite what his critics said about his lack of inspiration and originality, Meegeren used some amount of creativity and imagination to develop new artworks of Vermeer’s. If just one mediocre man could fool an entire world of art critics who deem what’s right and wrong about art, then who’s to say that the artwork we consider “inspiring and creative” is correct? Is what we deem as “impactful” and “original” truly one that is? Or is it because our society has labeled it as that, that we believe it is? And in that essence, can an art forger be deemed an “artist,” or will he forever remain a “criminal” to our world?
One thought on “The Curious Case Study of Han Van Meegeren: Mediocre Artist or Hidden Genius”
Meegeren was obvious talented as he won several metals, was able to even hold is how expedition in 1917 art, and was even invited to join the society of painters. These feats could not be achieved by someone as untalented as some claim him to be. His ability to recreate a Vermeer piece that even professional experts could not even tell it apart from the artist’s original works is quite impressive. I found it interesting how after everyone found out he was a forger, they still labeled him as a mediocre artist. I would not say a mediocre artist would be able to fool everyone into believing his pieces were authentic. I agree that his spatial awareness and ability to conjure up images from his memory/ imagination is genius in itself, and his creating of original Vermeer’s requires a lot of creativity. I also think you bring up an important idea of what artwork be considered as unoriginal and uncreative vs. one that takes inspiration from another artist?
I also think this is an interesting concept as who should be deemed an artist. Andy Warhol, famous for his bright, colorful paintings and prints, designed the stencils for his prints but at one point had the security guard and many technicians of his studio actually print the ink. In this sense, isn’t the security guard, who made the actual prints be considered an artist as well? Andy Warhol had the vision, but his security guard/ technicians at the manufacturing company were the ones making the prints, so who should be considered the artist?