A short, fascinating article reports controversy surrounding the painting Old Man in an Armchair, created in 1652 by Rembrandt—or not. Besides a fascinating glimpse into the scholarship of art, and human nature too, it raises unspoken questions of whether we can trust our eyes and even our minds.*
Donated in lieu of death taxes in 1950, it was the pride of Britain’s National Gallery until it was soon denounced as having been painted by one of Rembrandt’s followers. Hither and yon the critics battled, until it starred in the museum’s 2010 exhibition of fakes. Now it is back, reputation restored, in their recent exhibition of the Old Master’s later glories. Read the article and see for yourself if you think it is by Rembrandt; my point is broader.
The Financial Times piece describes how such arguments emerge. It cites the Rembrandt Research Project (R.R.P.), a committee of experts seeking to authenticate originals; but those scholars who are the hardest to convince wield disproportionate influence over their peers. Next,
… connoisseurship itself fell out of fashion. ‘New art history’ (which became dominant from the late 1970s onwards) believed that connoisseurship was a redundant, elitist practice, and was no longer taught as a key skill for art historians and curators. Social, economic and philosophical generalisation was the order of the day. As a result, the wide and informed debate that should have taken place every time a Rembrandt attribution was questioned didn’t happen. Few ever came to Rembrandt’s defence.
Many well-loved Rembrandts were discredited, and then exonerated again, and back and forth it goes. The argument cui bono remains, although headlines abound and critical careers flourish by rubbishing a world-famous museum’s multi-million dollar masterpiece. Conversely, imagine trying to get publicity from a press-release headed “Experts Say Rembrandt Oil was by Rembrandt,” or “Grant Buried in Grant’s Tomb, Says Historian.”
To some degree, the Rembrandt Research Project’s well-meaning attempt to circumvent error by using a committee may still be the joker in the deck, even discounting an individual’s incentive to discredit paintings. Committees can still get it wrong. The 1927 anti-prohibition song, Fifty Million Frenchman Can’t be Wrong, contains a logical fallacy called the argumentum ad populum; refuted by replying that fifty million flies eat garbage. There is little safety in numbers.
Consider the movie Star Wars. Skilled multitudes worked on George Lucas’s epic, looking for a timeless design ostensibly set far into the future. Yet, viewed today, could anything be more painfully stuck in the 1970s? Just look at the haircuts! If anyone still thinks he can see accurately through the eyes of the past or the future, consider Han van Meegeren.
Hailed as the Twentieth Century’s most successful art forger, over a decade van Meegeren (1889-1947) earned up to thirty million dollars in today’s money, chiefly faking Johannes Vermeer. A Dutch art teacher whose own paintings were scorned, he spent six years perfecting his technology:
He bought authentic 17th century canvas and mixed his own paints from raw materials (such as lapis lazuli, white lead, indigo, and cinnabar) using old formulas to ensure that they were authentic. In addition, he used badger-hair paintbrushes, similar to those Vermeer was known to have used. He came up with a scheme of using phenol formaldehyde (Bakelite) to cause the paints to harden after application, making the paintings appear as if they were 300 years old. After completing a painting, van Meegeren would bake it at 100 °C (212.0 °F) to 120 °C (248.0 °F) to harden the paint, and then roll it over a cylinder to increase the cracks. Later, he would wash the painting in black India ink to fill in the cracks.
The forger never copied known works, cleverly producing new designs in the styles of the masters. First, experts were fooled and then major museums. Wealthy and patriotic Hollanders feverishly bought every Dutch Master daub that they could afford, rescued from Nazi invaders who bought art too, but some paintings were fakes. Hermann Göring paid today’s equivalent of seven million dollars for one of van Meegeren’s Vermeers, while others were snapped up by Dutch collectors.
After the war van Meegeren faced the death penalty for collaboration, for having sold authentic cultural heritage to the enemy. His only defence was confessing to forgery. To prove it, he painted one before a panel of witnesses and was given a nominal one-year sentence for fraud, but died before he went to gaol. The ordinary Dutch found his chicanery amusing—after all, he had humiliated their sniffy experts and hoodwinked leaders of the self-styled Master Race. A collectors’ market developed for van Meegeren fakes; so much that his son was found forging his father’s forgeries.
One problem survives: the infamous Vermeer fakes do not look like Vermeer’s originals. They look more like Vermeer’s than, say, a Tijuana Elvis on black velvet, but not much more. See for yourself. This website asks you to look at ten pictures and discern the real Johannes Vermeers from the Han van Meegeren forgeries. I am no art historian, and doubt that I have an especially keen eye, yet I scored one hundred per cent.
So how did it happen? Even given a frantic buyers’ market overall and the approval of mighty critics, and even Der Führer’s nearest and dearest craving Brownshirt Brownie Points, it still does not add up. The fakes were not purchased for pennies at flea-markets, or in a dark, underground parking-lot at midnight or sight-unseen on Ebay; they were studied by a small army of curators, critics, gallery-owners, and experienced collectors. We can rule out some obscure medieval mass-hysteria caused by LSD-style hallucinations from ergot-infected grain: This happened within living memory. We know what early Twentieth Century experts looked for in a Vermeer, because they wrote books on the subject. How could the dupes have been so wrong? Some art experts suspect it was the approval of art celebrities.
We may never know, but the implications ought to be unsettling. This is not like the ordinarily practical Dutch being snookered by Seventeenth Century Tulip Mania, where in 1637 a single bulb sold for ten times the annual earnings of a skilled craftsman; the flowers were real enough, only the vagaries of fashion, demand and price were unpredictable. In van Meegeren’s forgeries, our great-grandparents or grandparents looked at the same daubs that we do today, but saw something very different. It gives us reason to wonder what our more distant forebears appreciated about their visual art that we still revere; or if Ancient Greeks came away from Homeric tales with messages beyond our modern ken.
My brother, a devout Catholic with a theological bent, visits his local Jewish synagogue for their Torah classes; and the rabbi’s vast erudition deepens knowledge of what was reported in the Old Testament and why. Sometimes it overturns modern interpretations, justifying the scholarship that ever hones our judgement. Culture colours perceptions over time; the differences between then and now are often knowable but sometimes not obviously so, and in the case of understanding van Meegeren’s dupes perhaps not at all.
Maybe van Meegeren’s reception also remains a mystery in order to teach us something just as valuable; namely that seeing should not always be believing. Without wandering too deep into the elephant-grass of bargain-basement mysticism, maybe humility remains a virtue. Like those competent and earnest scientists, who spent fifty years trumpeting that animal fats were unhealthy food but who now blame carbohydrates, maybe experts in art and culture can be just as wrong. It may be prudent to bear that in mind—as we keep looking, thinking and studying.
*Read the essay here.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.