A gifted forger from the 1920’s still fascinates today

As a paint maker I find Han van Meegeren fascinating rather than appealing.

He was most definitely not a lovable rogue. He wasn’t even a particularly brilliant forger. What astonishes us is the lengths he we went to so as to understand the ageing process within oil paints and successfully replicate the damage of time by condensing hundreds of years into a matter of days.

The poet Philip Larkin wrote rudely that we can blame our parents for almost every conceivable ill. Van Meegeren (senior) had no time for Han’s artistic interests and forced him to write 100 times ‘I know nothing, I am nothing, I am capable of nothing’. So Van Meegeren became an architect, but once beyond the thrall of his overbearing parents, he made it to art school where initially he did very well. He met and married a fellow art student Anna de Vogogt and started his short lived career as a legitimate painter, sketching posters and pictures for the commercial art trade along with Christmas cards, still life landscapes and portraits.

Through this period however one gets the feeling that he was unhappy with his work for whilst his clients generally liked what he painted, he felt that he was producing what was demanded at a great and unseemly speed.

Drug habits and general debauched behaviour followed, as did infidelity which lead to divorce in 1923.

It was in a drunken and increasing desperate financial situation that the forgeries in the style of the Old Dutch Masters started as a trickle.

Now almost in the stuff of novels, Han rented a mansion house and set out to develop a procedure to create the perfect forgeries. He started by using authentic 17 century canvases and then made his own paints to paint over the top. He created his own paintbrushes with badger hair, but best of all he came up with the ingenious idea of getting the paint to age rapidly. Somehow he devised upon using Bakelite (the stuff of old telephones and saucepan handles) which he ground up and mixed with the oil paints causing them to harden after application. After producing a painting, he put it into his home-made oven at 100°.

The paint would go hard, the Bakelite would char and then quite brilliantly, he rolled the canvas over a cylinder to increase the cracks. In a matter of hours he had managed to speed up and recreate the ageing of decades and centuries.

Later he would wash the painting in a liquid black ink to fill in the cracks. This brilliant technique took some six years to work out, but ultimately these painting worked on the level of deception rather than the artistry. They were OK pictures but they were brilliant reproductions!

And he started to sell these forgeries in the run up and during the second world war and he would have enjoyed the significant sums of money he was amassing were it not for the fact one of these pictures in the style of Vermeer was purchase by a Nazi Bank before being purchased by the Nazi war criminal Hermann Goring who prided himself as an art curator.

In 1945 this work was discovered by the Allies who wrongly deduced Van Meegeren’s involvement as a plunderer of genuine stolen art works.

Han van Meegeren was arrested on the 29th of May 1945 and charged with fraud and aiding and abetting the enemy. It was his alleged role in looting paintings primarily from Jewish owners and thereby assisting the Nazi regime amass wealth which brought him before the court rather than the crime of forgery. As a collaborator and as a plunderer of Dutch cultural property, van Meegeren was facing the death penalty.

He was in a sticky situation so van Meegeren  had to confess to forging paintings to save his life…. But few would believe him!

So he was made to paint his last forgery between July and December 1945 in the presence of court approved onlookers to avoid the death penalty.

The irony is that many critics did not want to come to his aid because having been taken in they simply wanted to see him hang. Generally however, the public sentiment was to acknowledge that the one good thing he had done in life was to inadvertently humiliate and confound Herman Goring.

When Herman Goring (according to an onlooker) was informed that his beloved Vermeer painting was actually a forgery, he looked so shocked that anyone could be so dishonest ‘as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world’. At least he achieved one good thing!

The subject matter for this Blog also appears in a fuller form as a Podcast under the Cranfield – Colour Like no other series available on Spotify, Podbeam and under the discover tab on this web site.

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