Han van Meegeren: His Story, His Artworks, His Forgeries
In life, there will always be people who stand out from the rest of the crowd. They have that extraordinary enthusiasm that most people don’t have. In the same way, they can show their flair for their craft that leaves many people awed by what they can do. They are more impressive than others simply because they are the best at what they do. Han van Meegeren is a lot like that and his life’s story borders between inspirational and sensational. His story is impressive enough that there are stories written that are inspired by his story and his talent. Besides, he is considered to be the best forge of the 20th Century.
The Story of Han van Meegeren
Han van Meegeren was born on October 10, 1889 in Deventer, Netherlands. His real name is Henricus Antonius van Meegeren. As a child, he developed an interest in the arts and painting. During this time, he met Bartus Korteling who had become his teacher and mentor. Korteling was inspired by Johannes Vermeer and of the 17th century Dutch paintings. This is probably the reason why Han van Meegeren studied and deeply understands this genre of painting the most.
No matter how interested he was with painting, his father strongly discouraged him into developing his talent. Instead, his father wanted him to become an architect, and so, he studied briefly to become one. But because he did not wish to become an architect, he deliberately left his architectural studies to pursue his studies on drawing and painting.
When he later became qualified to become a professor, he was offered a position as a professor in the Academy of Arts but he rejected the offer because he wanted to pursue a career as an independent artist. He later became an assistant to a professor in drawing and art history. During this time also, he was starting a family. But with his meager salary as an assistant, he needed to work more to supplement his income. So, he would paint small pictures mainly for Christmas cards, still-life art, landscape art, and portraits for the commercial art trade.
When he first showed his paintings publicly in an art gallery, he was immediately accepted by the society of writers and painters as a select member. In no time, he had become popular as a talented portraitist in most parts of Europe. He had earned commission from people who had been impressed by his knowledge of paintings from the 17th century style and techniques and his profound knowledge of the 17th century Dutch masters. Throughout his life, he had a career as a legitimate painter where he would sign his own signature. Even as a legitimate painter, he still has to work in the art of portraiture to increase his income.
How and Why He Started His Forgeries
In The Netherlands, he had become a popular and wealthy painter. However, the similarities of his painting styles with the Old Dutch Masters had also earned him some of the most insulting criticisms about his craft. He was criticized as someone who has a talent in copying other artists’ work and that he has no originality. He was so angry at his critics that he would do anything to prove to everyone about their ignorance. He set out to prove that he could not only copy the painting styles of the Old Dutch Masters but that his paintings could also rival their works.
Preparation of his forgeries took him six years. His subjects are the works of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer. He had studied their biographies and each of their trademark techniques and catalogues. To perfect his forgeries, he learned to use chemicals on his paintings to make them look old. He studied the technical procedures that would be necessary to make them look authentic.
His original plan was to create a perfect forgery and let his critics praise his works. And afterwards let them know that they are praising a fake painting that he had created. This plan was to shame his critics and make them realize their ignorance about art. As planned, his forgery “The Supper at Emmaus” was praised highly by art critic Dr. Abraham Bredius. Because of that, it was sold at a high price and made him good money. He realized he could use it to increase his income. His pride could wait; he could live luxuriously creating perfect forgeries.
How He Was Caught
He would never have been caught. His forgeries were so perfect that even the best art critics in The Netherlands were fooled by them. His forgeries that were sold were passed off by experts as original works of the Golden Age Masters where he signed their signatures on. However, one of his forgeries “Christ with the Adulteress”, ended up in the hands of Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring. After the downfall of the Nazis, this painting was discovered and was thought to be an original painting by Johannes Vermeer. “Christ with the Adulteress” was traced back to him as the source.
His Guilt, His Innocence
After his arrest, he was facing charges of plundering of Dutch cultural property and aiding and abetting the enemy. These charges could have him end up serving extensive prison time or the death penalty. His choices were bleak. He had to confess about his original crime which is much milder than that. His crime was never about plundering or supporting violence in the first place. His crime was only about proving his genius and his ingenuity.
With bleak choices in his hands, he confessed that he has forged the painting that was discovered. Of course, nobody believed him. He had to prove in court that he indeed painted the pictures that were discovered. So, within two months in prison, he painted his last forgery “Jesus among the Doctors” to prove his claims. During these times, he was creating his forgery under the scrutiny of court appointed witnesses and art experts.
After proving his claims, his collaboration charges had been dropped but had brought him charges of forgery and fraud. He was found guilty for forgery and fraud and was sentenced to a one year prison term. Before he could serve his sentence, he died of heart attack. Han van Meegeren did not serve a single day in prison for his term. He died on December 30, 1947 in Amsterdam.
The Forge Forged
As a legitimate painter, Han van Meegeren was able to create thousands of paintings in diverse styles. He was probably the most successful at being a portraitist as his portrait art had served to earn him the most money as a legitimate artist.
After he was unmasked as a forge, he had become very popular in The Netherlands and therefore his paintings grew more expensive. After the rise in price of his works, forgers thought it worthwhile to fake his paintings as well. His son, Jacques van Meegeren became one of his forgers.