Counting Vermeer


2.3 Forgeries of Vermeer paintings

X-radiographs of Vermeer paintings also played a crucial role in the court case against the Dutch painter and art dealer, Han van Meegeren (1889-1947). In 1945 Van Meegeren was arrested and brought to trial on the suspicion of collaboration with the Nazis in having sold a Vermeer – the renowned Christ and the Adulteress­ – to Hermann Göring (1893-1946), commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. Following Van Meegeren’s claim of having forged the picture, together with several other works by Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, the court appointed an international committee to investigate their authenticity. The committee was led by the Belgian chemist Paul Coremans (1908-1965), who conducted the technical analysis together with Wiebo Froentjes (1909-2006), a chemist working at the Dutch ministry of Justice in The Hague, and Martin de Wild.1 X-radiographs were instrumental in proving the paintings were indeed forgeries.2 The craquelure of the confiscated paintings showed for instance many more cracks on the paint surface than could be detected in the X-radiographs (in genuine Old Master paintings the crack pattern on the surface corresponds with the cracks visible in the X-radiographs). The investigators also found that the high contrast between light and dark areas, as seen for instance in the X-ray of the face in Girl with a Pearl Earring (L22), was very different to that in X-rays of faces of similar size in the suspected paintings [1].3


Left: the X-radiograph of the bust of St. John of Van Meegeren’s Last Supper (private collection; photo from Coremans 1949, plate 68) shows little contrast between the lit and shadow areas in the face, as compared to (right) the X-radiograph of the girl’s face in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the years following the Van Meegeren forgery investigation, the use of X-rays in the study of paintings became an increasingly standard procedure. For Rembrandt paintings in particular, X-radiographs would prove to be an important tool. The novel investigation in the Rijksmuseum in the 1950s by the art historian Arthur van Schendel (1910-1979) of the canvas supports of Rembrandt’s Syndics (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) is particularly noteworthy,4 in addition to the extensive X-radiographic studies of Rembrandt paintings by Magdeleine Hours of the Louvre and the radiologist, Martin Meier-Siem in Hamburg.5 Meier-Siem was also involved in the systematic X-radiographic research of over 400 Old Master paintings in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, published in 1967.6 From the 1960s onwards the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) collected X-radiographs of Rembrandt paintings from all over the world. For Rembrandt studies, X-radiographs would play a key role in understanding Rembrandt’s painting technique, the condition of the paintings, and in gaining information about their supports (see Chapter 3).7


1 N. Garthoff, ‘Een vervalser bekent’, in: F. Lammertse (ed.), De Vermeers van Van Meegeren. Kennerschap en de techniek van het vervalsen, Rotterdam 2011 (vol. 6 of Boijmans Studies), pp. 42-65, esp. pp. 43-45. The findings of the technical investigation were published in: P. Coremans, Van Meegeren’s faked Vermeers and De Hooghs: A Scientific Examination, Amsterdam 1949 and W. Froentjes and A.M. de Wild, ‘De natuurwetenschappelijke bewijsvoering in het proces Van Meegeren’, Chemisch Weekblad 45 (1949), pp. 269-278.

2 Coremans sent X-radiographs for comment to chemist George L. Stout (1897-1978) and Director Rutherford J. Gettens (1900-1974) of The Fogg Art Museum. See: F.G. Bewer, A Laboratory for Art. Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900-1950, Cambridge (MA)/New Haven 2010, pp. 232-233.

3 P. Coremans, Van Meegeren’s faked Vermeers and De Hooghs: A Scientific Examination, Amsterdam 1949, pp. 7-12 and W. Froentjes and A.M. de Wild, ‘De natuurwetenschappelijke bewijsvoering in het proces Van Meegeren’, Chemisch Weekblad 45 (1949), p. 274.

4 A. van Schendel, ‘Notes on the Support of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis’, Konsthistorisk Tidskrift 25 (1956), pp. 38-42.

5 M. Hours, ‘Rembrandt: Observations et présentation de radiographies exécutées d’après les portraits et compositions du Musée du Louvre’, Bulletin du Laboratoire du Musée du Louvre 6 (1961), pp. 3-43; M. Meier-Siem, ‘Die Bedeutung der Röntgenuntersuchungen für die Zuschreibung von Gemälden zum Werk Rembrandts’, in: Deutscher Röntgenkongress 1964: Bericht über die 45. Tagung der Deutschen Röntgengesellschaft vom 9. bis 13. April 1964 in Wiesbaden, Stuttgart 1965, pp. 286-288. For a chronological overview of the history of X-radiography in the study of Rembrandt paintings: H. von Sonnenburg, Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Aspects of Connoisseurship, 2 vols., New York 1995, vol. 1, pp. 144-146.

6 M.E. Houtzager, M. Meier-Siem, H. Stark, and H.J. de Smedt, Röntgenonderzoek van de oude schilderijen in het Centraal Museum te Utrecht, Utrecht 1967.

7 E. van de Wetering, ‘The canvas support’, in: J. Bruijn et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, 6 vols., Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster 1982-2014, vol. 2 (1986), pp. 15-43, esp. pp. 18-19; reprinted in: E. van de Wetering, Rembrandt. The Painter at Work, Amsterdam 1997, pp. 91-130.

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