Just before Christmas of 1947, a Dutch convict died in a Hospital in Holland. His death prevented him from being transferred to Gaol to serve a term of imprisonment. The offence that he had been convicted of was the carrying out of one of the most fantastic forgeries the world of art had ever known.
His name was Han Van Meegeren, and in the 1930's he had been one of Europes most prominent portrait painters, he was highly sought after by Europes wealthy and powerful.
Van Meergen acknowledged that he was a forger and lists as his works six paintings worth almost 30 million dollars in today's money. These paintings were accepted for years as the best works of Vermeer. Some described Van Meergen as a belated genius on par with the great 17th century masters.
However, while fame and wealth came his way, the critics did not oblige and consistently withheld their praise. They acknowledged his technical skill but never of the genius he was convinced was his due.
Lack of Recognition
This lack of artistic recognition left him bitter and vengeful, and he devised a brilliant form of revenge against the whole class of art critics and experts. This story of revenge and the form it took and how it brought scorn to the foremost art critics in Europe during this pre-war period is now a fascinating part of art history.
Van Meergen moved to France and set-up a studio in Nice. In 1937 the art world got a lovely surprise. A beautiful painting emerged found on a French farm. The farmer's wife said that her grandmother, a Dutchwoman, had been given it at her wedding in Holland years before. The paint was brittle, and the canvas was old.
Once the painting was cleaned, critics needed only a glance at the blues to proclaim it a Vermeer. Nobody else they said could produce such blues. In the corner of the painting were the letters V Meer.
One aspect of the painting confused critics. The scene was biblical, showing Christ breaking bread with two disciples while a woman looked on.
Never before had Vermeer been known as a painter of the Bible. This made some critics suspicious. However, other critics said the new subject matter could be added to Vermeer's body of work. It made the painting more valuable and opened up a new field of Vermeer's.
Art experts from all over the world signed affidavits attesting to the authenticity of the painting. They said that they would stake their reputations on it. New Vermeers were 'discovered' every few months, in an attic or a barn in an abandoned house. Critics hailed five biblical scenes as Vermeers.
Sixth painting discovered.
By the time the sixth, "The Unfaithful Woman," was discovered, Goering because of World War 2 had become Europe's foremost art collector. Goebbels purchased the painting from Van Meegeren himself who had returned to Amsterdam.
Van Meegeren was rich when he arrived back in Holland. He brought a large house, furnished it lavishly and sensuously, and spent the remainder of World War 2 as one of Holland's top hosts.
Arrested at the end of World War 2
He was arrested soon after the German surrender in 1945, on a charge of "collaboration" for having sold a rare "old master" to Goering. He stated in his defence that what he had done was to trick the enemy, having painted the supposed "Vermeer" himself as well as several other well-known masters hanging in the national collections.
His story was ridiculed as impossible; and after exhaustive tests, experts declared that the pictures he claimed to have painted were unquestionably genuine seventeen-century original works.
Proved his innocence by painting a picture
But the public interest had been excited that Van Meegeren was allowed to paint a picture in prison, under the eye of several experts. He produced a "Vermeer" so marvellously similar to the original work that those who watched him work were not only convinced but fascinated, hailing it as "the new miracle of the painter's art."
He was given a seventeenth-century canvas, and badger hair brushes all the chemicals he ordered were made available, and the pigments that he required were obtained from all over Europe.
He chose as his subject the Biblical scene of Christ hearing and answering questions in the temple.
This painting he knew was his last masterpiece, and despite the number of eyes that watched him while he worked the two months that he worked was ecstasy for him.
When the work was finished, the experts no longer sceptical, were forced to admit he was in truth the author of the Vermeer discoveries on which had been lavished with praise.
Van Meegeren did not live to complete his sentence. Weakened by the stress of the trial and his unhealthy lifestyle, he died of a heart attack. To himself and perhaps many others, he had proved his genius but most likely killed him prematurely.