A well-known epigram says that revenge is a dish best served cold. This is evident in the elaborate schemes of Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren, as revealed in Frank Wynne's I Was Vermeer. A journalist and translator, Wynne blends reportorial skill with a love of irony to tell van Meegeren's life story, the saga of a frustrated, paranoid and drug-addicted 20th-century artist who was born to be a painter; unfortunately, he was fifty years too late. Van Meegeren wanted desperately to be an artist. Though his autocratic father routinely destroyed his sketchbooks, he pursued his dream via secret tutelage by a school friend's artist father. By the time he departed to study architecture in Delft, he was well-schooled in the methods of the Dutch Masters. Van Meegeren neglected his studies to practice painting in the manner of Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer his especial muse. Finding little critical acclaim for his old-style paintings amid the contemporary tide of artistic innovation, the forger was born: He vowed revenge, made millions and fooled the art world establishment (as well as the Nazis) by creating exquisite fake Vermeers, many of which ended up in Europe's most hallowed art museums.
Set in tumultuous times, I Was Vermeer has the makings of a noir thriller, and Wynne attempts to plot and pace it as such. The action, however, loses suspenseful momentum as he develops sub-themes of how ego-driven art criticism fosters forgery, and minutely discusses the forger's craft (including van Meegeren's reproduction of the craquelure, or age lines, in his most famous Vermeer forgery, The Supper at Emmaus ). Crime thriller or forgery primer, this intriguing read also proves another epigram: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.