Research

False berkemeiers on Van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgery

By prof. dr. H. E. Henkes (1918 - 2010), 9 february 2011.


In the 1930s the painting 'De Emmaüsgangers' (The disciples at Emmaus) was wrongly regarded as an important early seventeenth century work by Johannes Vermeer and was bought by Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Only after the Second World War was it found to be a forgery dating from 1937 and painted by Han van Meegeren (1889-1947).

vanmeegeren

Research into pre-industrial glassware gives us the possibility of once again unmasking this famous painting. At first glance the two wine glasses shown on the table bring to mind the early seventeenth century berkemeier glasses, the forerunners of the rummer, that were in use in the Netherlands at the time. A careful study shows that the glass depicted here is a berkemeier form that was nowhere in use in the seventeenth century.

The berkemeier, also known as the ‘early rummer’, was a popular drinking glass in the northern Netherlands in the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century. It is a wine glass of green forest glass, the lower half of which is decorated with pulled glass drops, known as ‘thorn knobs’, and which spreads out into a conical bowl. The rummer, which appeared towards the end of the sixteenth century, is distinguished from the berkemeier by the round form of the bowl.

The name ‘berkemeier’ for a glass knobbed goblet was unknown in Germany, but how we must visualise such a glass is not made clear in the written texts.70 It was certainly not the glass we know as a rummer. That type of glass was only developed towards 1600. The idea that it was a drinking glass of the berkemeier type receives support from depictions of such glasses – certainly not rummers - on appliqués on late sixteenth century stoneware jars. The marginal text round these mention a ‘Ro(o)mer’.71

The berkemeier glass developed from the knobbed beaker of the early fourteenth century, a cylindrical glass with glass drops and an outward curving rim. In the fifteenth century the glass became slightly barrel-shaped while the glass knobs, which at first resembled snail-shells, were made larger and were pulled out to a ‘thorn’.  In this way the glass came to resemble a cabbage stalk without leaves, and was given the German name ‘Krautstrunk’. The following stage of development was a low model of the ‘cabbage stalk’ with a single row of large flat knobs, and this type was in use around 1500, along with the high ‘cabbage stalk’. The low version underwent further development: the outward curving rim was extended and formed a greater part of the body of the beaker. Around the middle of the sixteenth century a conical goblet came into being, the lower half of which was covered with usually two rows of ‘thorn knobs’, while the upper half remained undecorated. After 1550 there was an obvious kink in the body of berkemeier. This resulted in a cylindrical lower part, the stem, and an almost equally tall conical bowl. Shortly before 1600 the bowl part of the berkemeijer glass showed a slight curve, so introducing the typically convex rummer bowl.

With the arrival of the rummer the knobbed decoration also changed gradually: the drop of hot glass was no longer pulled out in a thorn shape but stamped to what is called a bramble knob, a glass ball pressed flat and having the appearance of a blackberry. The first bramble knobs appeared as early as the sixteenth century on the early rummers, although this was infrequent.  In the course of the seventeenth century they gradually took the place of the thorn knob on rummers, so that by 1650 virtually all rummers had bramble knob decoration. However, the berkemeier glass, with a few exceptions, kept the thorn knobs, although these became less pointed over time. For a short period towards the middle of the seventeenth century a round, smooth knob was used as decoration on stems of both rummers and berkemeiers.

From the time of its introduction in the fourteenth century until the sixteenth century the knobbed beaker had an ‘over-sewn’ rim to the foot, although now and again a smooth foot rim was used. Towards 1600, as well as the ‘over-sewn’ rimmed foot, the spiral thread foot was used more and more frequently; a thin thread of glass was wound round several times under the base of stem. In the seventeenth century this foot remained fairly low on the berkemeier, but on the rummer it developed into a high foot. In the first half of the seventeenth century both the berkemeier and the rummer could have either an ‘over-sewn’ foot rim or a spiral thread foot. In this period the popularity of the rummer increased at the expense of the berkemeier. Berkemeiers were still made until shortly before 1650, but after that they seem to have disappeared.

Of the early forms of knobbed glasses, as well as the archaeological finds coming from Germany and dating from the first half of the fourteenth century, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has a splendid intact beaker with thorn knobs that dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century.72 There is little known of the origins of this glass. It is possible that this glass was used as a reliquary holder and for centuries was kept safe in an altar. Eventually the glass lost its religious function and ended up in the trade. Such glasses were exceptionally suited to keeping relics because these could be displayed visibly in them, and just the sight of what was holy, the ‘Heiltum’  as it was called in contemporary literature, gave salvation and healing. The fifteenth and sixteenth century ‘cabbage stalks’ were also used as reliquaries. In the ‘old’ collection of the museum a number of examples can be found. For the ‘cabbage stalk’ from which the berkemeier and the rummer developed we must go to the archaeological material held in the Van Beuningen-de Vriese collection in the museum. Thanks to ALMA it is not difficult to find the paintings and prints in which the various types of berkemeiers are depicted.

berkemeier

The central point of this research is two berkemeijers of a very different order, those that appear in the painting that once was incorrectly deemed to be an important work of Johannes Vermeer, 'The disciples at Emmaus'. It is difficult to understand why in all the heated disputes over the authenticity of this painting the form of the utensils shown, in particular one drinking glass, was not used as an argument against the piece being authentic. In Van Meegeren’s forgery the bread that plays such an important part in the Gospel story is flanked by two glasses. One of these is partially obscured by a dish, the other at Christ’s right hand, is shown in totality. At the time, the painting was regarded by experts as an early Vermeer and dated around 1660. Glasses are to be found in various works by Vermeer from that period. Two figures in 'The matchmaker' from 1656 (Gemäldegalerie Dresden) have drinking glasses in their hands, the woman has a rummer and one of the men holds a beer glass. Other pictures from this period by Vermeer also show glasses, such as 'The glass of wine' from 1660/61 (Gemäldegalerie Berlin-Dahlem) where the glass gives the work its title, and 'A lady and two gentlemen' (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig) from 1662. However, in all these paintings by Vermeer there is no berkemeier to be found; the glasses in Vermeer’s paintings are all depicting authentic seventeenth century types.

The glass in 'The disciples at Emmaus' has neither foot rim nor thread foot. Rummers and berkemeiers, however, have never stood directly on the stem base, but in the seventeenth century had either an angled foot rim or a spiral thread foot. Around 1660, so about the time 'The disciples at Emmaus' was thought to have been painted, for more than twenty years only the spiral thread foot had been used on both types of wine glasses. Even if we accept that the objects that an artist depicts could come from an earlier period, the absence of a foot rim or spiral thread foot is inexplicable. In addition to the absence of an attached foot, there is yet another aspect of the Emmaus berkemeier that arouses suspicion. The stem is decorated with two rows of bramble knobs. In the history of the berkemeier that would be just about unique: they were never decorated with bramble knobs. With the exception of a short period around 1650 when a smooth round knob was used, the stem of the berkemeijer always has thorn knobs.

The berkemeier in the The disciples at Emmaus is not a seventeenth century glass. Apart from the absence of a spiral thread foot or foot rim and the anachronistic bramble knobs, it appears too heavy. Seventeenth century rummers and berkemeiers are graceful and delicate, something emphasised by the fine glass thread that was attached at the junction of the stem and the bowl. On the Emmaus berkemeier this has become a broad glass band that increases the impression of heaviness of the glass. Such a heavy base is more typical of the of the nineteenth century glasses of the neo-styles. The glass in Van Meergaren’s forgery shows a similarity rather with the berkemeiers that were made in the 1890s.

From a price list from February 1886 from the Rheinische Glashütten-AG in Ehrenfeld (near Cologne) it appears that nineteenth century imitations of seventeenth century glasswork were highly popular. The catalogue shows an imitation of a fifteenth century ‘cabbage stalk’ as ‘Nachbildung eines altdeutschen Glases’. A number of imitations of rummers and berkemeiers were also on offer, in the colour ‘antik-grün’. The berkemeiers shown here have a smooth foot rim and are decorated with two rows of thorn knobs.  For the present day connoisseur the difference in design, thickness, colour and execution is immediately obvious, but these imitations were still quite often sold as seventeenth century glassware. Possibly without knowing it, Van Meegeren used nineteenth century imitations of seventeenth century berkemeiers as props for his forgery.

On the grounds of the above, it may be concluded that the discussion on the authenticity of 'The disciples at Emmaus' could have taken a very different turn if at the time the glass in the painting was examined in the light of the knowledge of such glassware. In that case the conclusion that the painting could not date from the seventeenth century would have been reached more rapidly. In this way the importance of in-depth research into utensils and artefacts from earlier times and the way in which they are shown in contemporary paintings is demonstrated. In such research ALMA can be a very useful instrument.

Notes

70 R. Schmidt, Das Glas, Berlijn, 1912, p. 147; J.G.N. Renaud, ‘Middeleeuwsch glas in Nederland’, in: Oudheidkundig jaarboek 1943, serie IV, deel 12, pp. 110, noot 9.

71 H.J. Domsta, ‘Der Römer: Name und Form eines Trinkglases auf Abbildungen des späten 16. Jahrhunderts’, in: Journal of glass studies XXVIII, 1986, pp. 118-120, pp. 119.

72 A.P.E. Ruempol en A.G.A. van Dongen, Pre-industriële gebruiksvoorwerpen 1150-1800, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen/De Bataafsche Leeuw, 1991, pp. 46, inv.no. F 10059 en F 10060.

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