A spectacular story of vengeance and fraud told with verve and style by British journalist Wynne, translator to English of Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, 2000, among others.
The incredible story of how Dutch painter Han van Meegeren avenged himself on supercilious art critics by becoming an expert forger of Vermeer and fooling the Nazis conveys a valuable lesson in how we see, notes Wynne in this methodical, suspenseful tale. A largely self-taught artist with reactionary views out of sync with modernist fashion, van Meegeren, from the city of Deventer, obsessively taught himself the arcane knowledge of 17th-century painting (the use of pigments, ores and metals) while studying architecture in Delft. At first hailed as a promising young talent, he was passed over as a fogey, then left his first wife and scandalously married Joanna Oelermans, former wife of esteemed art critic Karel de Boer. Moving from art restoration to copying the masters, van Meegeren devoted himself to forgery, and decided to choose as his “victim” Vermeer, an artist long neglected with a paucity of output whose rediscovery was largely due to the writing of French critic Théophile Thoré in the mid-19th century. Working out of a house he purchased with Joanna in Nice, van Meegeren stripped a second-rate period canvas, employed only materials Vermeer would have used, reproduced the craquelure to make it completely convincing, and in essence created a lost 17th-century religious masterpiece of his own genius: The Supper at Emmaus, after a Caravaggio he had seen. Next came the job of authentication, readily supplied by the respected aging critic Abraham Bredius, and soon the phony masterpiece was bought for a fabulous sum and hung in The Hague’s Boijmans Gallery. With the advent of war, and Hitler’s determination to own a Vermeer of his own, van Meegeren’s knockoffs soon made their way into Hermann Göring’s collection. The forger’s trajectory from wealthy charlatan to national hero makes for delicious reading.
Wynne employs all the devices of an expert roman policier.