In the aftermath of the second world war, allied soldiers recovered paintings of great value that the Nazis had looted from museums during their conquest of Europe. Among these was a most remarkable work by the eminent Johann Vermeer, The woman taken in adultery, found in the stash of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-line. Tracing its acquisition records pointed to a certain Han van Meegeren as the dealer in Amsterdam and a potential traitor to the Netherlands. Faced with a charge of collaboration for selling a Dutch national treasure to the Nazis, van Meegeren wrestled with a dilemma: stand trial for this act of treason, punishable by death, or confess to forgery?
Van Meegeren had forged The woman taken in adultery, as well as a handful of other artworks, attributing them to Dutch golden age painters Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. This arose out of a desperate need for income due to his failing artistic career as well as a personal vendetta against the art historians and museum curators who denied his talents.
Van Meegeren was a unique forger, in that he created ‘original forgeries’ – paintings made to resemble the style of a particular artist but which had never been created by them. He imitated the styles of the masters so convincingly that he was able to dupe both the Nazis and well-regarded art historians. He accomplished this with a number of duplicitous tricks, including purchasing genuinely aged canvases and using the expensive ultramarine blue pigment that artists would have exclusively used for blue in the 17th century.
One trick involved mixing bakelite into paint pigments and baking completed canvases in the oven – the resulting hard paint layer gave the appearance of authentic age. Bakelite is the common name for a resin, a thermosetting plastic synthesised from an elimination reaction between phenol and formaldehyde.
Unfortunately, his clever sleight of hand was eventually seen through. A key witness to the trial was Paul Coremans, a Belgian chemist. To disprove van Meegeren’s work, he conducted x-ray radiography on the forgeries. The radiograph revealed damage marks from van Meegeren’s modification of the canvases he had obtained to fit his new paintings, detecting traces of the old paint layer’s white lead residue he had scraped away and showing that the craquelure of the underlying primer layer did not match that of the painted surface layer, which van Meegeren had artificially induced. Another anachronism was that the ultramarine blue pigment van Meegeren had used contained traces of cobalt blue, a cheaper synthetic alternative that would have been unavailable during Vermeer’s time.
Read full text at: A veneer of Vermeer | Chemistry World