- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

Jane Goodall, a comely Englishwoman who, in 1960 at age 26, went to live among the chimpanzees in Gombe, along Lake Tanganyika in Africa, was the first researcher to discover and document that chimpanzees make and use tools and eat meat (let alone dance). She also was among the first scientists to demonstrate that chimps and other large animals can have personalities.

Unencumbered with scientific training (she had taken a secretarial course rather than going to college) but armed with a hardy constitution, exceptional patience, brave heart and uncommon devotion to animals (as a child she once took earthworms to bed with her, and she left England only after her family’s dog had died), Jane overcame primitive living conditions, the dangers of the wild and innumerable illnesses to make mind-boggling contributions to the science of animal behavior.

Now, Dale Peterson, a writer who is coauthor of one of Jane Goodall’s many books, has recounted this remarkable woman’s life in Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (Houghton Mifflin, $35, 740 pages, illus.). Much of it is based on Ms. Goodall’s letters, plus an unpublished biography written by her mother, a novelist who spent a great deal of time in Africa with Jane.

Mr. Peterson’s book would have been twice as good if it had been half as long. He never met a quotation from Jane that he didn’t find necessary to include, complete with exclamation marks and all caps. Most of the first and last fifth of this doorstopper should be cut, and a new, compact version issued to capture the imagination of today’s young readers and inspire them to emulate Jane Goodall’s adventures in science.

That said, the persistent reader will admire Jane’s intrepid dealings with the renowned paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who originally sent her to Gombe for research and, after she had proved herself, insisted that she enroll at Cambridge for a Ph.D. so that her path-breaking work would get the professional recognition it deserved. It was Leakey also who is the source of the book’s subtitle about redefining man in light of Jane’s observations, since only humans had been thought capable of using tools.

Mr. Peterson’s story could almost be subtitled “The National Geographic and Jane Goodall,” because much of it relates to her constant struggle for funding. The magazine initially declined to publish her first report in 1962. Her first husband was a contract photographer for the magazine, whose photos of Jane at work eventually sold the magazine on her writings, but the magazine’s decision makers remained alternately enthusiastic and parsimonious.

The author describes Jane’s second husband as “the only democratically elected white politician on the entire continent,” who incidentally was violently anti-American and strongly objected to her lecturing regularly at Stanford University.

Details of both marriages appear in the book interwoven with mini-biographies of every person who ever worked at or even visited Gombe, not to mention biographies of all the chimps Jane named and followed over the years, details of every trip Jane has taken — even details of Jane’s pets’ ailments.

The latter part of the book deals with Ms. Goodall’s turn toward spiritual reflections and worldwide activism on behalf of chimpanzees and other animals. At age 73, she continues to lecture on “moral evolution,” her belief that humans can over time learn to become “less aggressive and war-like and more caring and compassionate.”

At the end of the book she’s at the Central Zoo in Pyongyang looking into the sad eyes of two emaciated chimps in a totally barren cage, advising the zoo administrators on their care and feeding. Indeed, as Mr. Peterson reads her thoughts, “there was still so much, so very much, yet to do.”

Considering the challenges inherent in forging a painting or a sculpture that will fool the experts, it is remarkable that so many fakes turn up in the museums of the world. But they are everywhere, and the story of Hans van Meegeren, perhaps the most inventive forger of the last century, is now retold by journalist Frank Wynne in I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger (Bloomsbury, $24.95, 276 pages, illus.).

Van Meegeren was born in the Dutch city of Deventer in 1889. As a child he showed promise in drawing and he aspired to a career as a painter, but the trend in art was toward abstraction, and Van Meegeren’s stodgy religious works brought him little praise and some ridicule. In 1923 he and a colleague turned to forgery, successfully selling “works” of Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch. Then Van Meegeren decided to specialize in forging the works of the 17th-century master Jan Vermeer.

He chose his subject well. After a period of relative neglect Vermeer had been rediscovered and his works were in demand. At the same time, his total production had been small (there are only 35 unchallenged Vermeers today) and experts had had relatively few opportunities to compare his works. Moreover, the art world assumed that more Vermeers were out there — products of a period when Vermeer was believed to have worked in Italy.

The forger’s greatest challenge was to replicate the materials Vermeer had used. But old canvases were available, and Van Meegeren was skilled at developing his own pigments. Because Vermeer had signed only about half of his paintings, the forger added no signature but let his buyer “discover” an unsigned work of the master. Van Meegeren sold his first “Vermeer” in 1932, “Lady and Gentleman at the Spinet.”

Van Meegeren prospered throughout the 1930s but appears to have become an alcoholic, a drug user and a Nazi sympathizer. It was his dealings with the Germans during World War II that brought about his downfall. In 1945 he was arrested for collaboration — specifically, for having sold a purported Vermeer, “Christ and the Adulteress,” to agents of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering.

To save himself from jail for collaboration, Van Meegeren confessed that he was a forger. To prove his point he dashed off a “Vermeer” for stunned Dutch authorities. He should be viewed as a patriot, Van Meegeren insisted, for having swindled Goering and having obtained the return of some Dutch paintings in payment.

Van Meegeren’s trial — held in a courtroom decorated with his forgeries — was a sensation. Nevertheless, Mr. Wynne writes, “Everything … was arranged to cause as little embarrassment as possible to the experts who had authenticated the works, the dealers who had sold them and the art world which had acclaimed them.” Van Meegeren was sentenced to a year in prison, but died of a heart attack before starting his sentence.

Mr. Wynne’s narrative breaks no new ground, and his use of the present tense and invented dialogue are distracting. But “I Was Vermeer” is a reminder of the uncertainties in the art world. As Van Meegeren’s son says, “Most forgeries just get sold from one person to another, and … the more often they’re sold, the longer they hang on a gallery wall, the more genuine they are.”

Caveat emptor!

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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