As a child, van Meegeren developed an enthusiasm for the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and later set out to become an artist himself. Art critics, however, decried his work as tired and derivative, and van Meegeren felt that they had destroyed his career. He decided to prove his talent to the critics by forging paintings of some of the world's most famous artists, including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer. He so well replicated the styles and colours of the artists that the best art critics and experts of the time regarded his paintings as genuine and sometimes exquisite. His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France. This painting was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts such as Abraham Bredius. Bredius acclaimed it as "the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft" and wrote of the "wonderful moment" of being "confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master".
During World War II, wealthy Dutchmen wanted to prevent a sellout of Dutch art to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and they avidly bought van Meegeren's forgeries, thinking them the work of the masters. Nevertheless, a falsified "Vermeer" ended up in the possession of Göring, who had traded 137 other paintings for it, and it became one of his most prized possessions. Following the war, the forgery was discovered in Göring's possession, and van Meegeren was arrested on 29 May 1945 as a collaborator, as officials believed that he had sold real Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. This would have been an act of treason, the punishment for which was death, so van Meegeren confessed to the less serious charge of forgery instead. He was convicted on falsification and fraud charges on 12 November 1947, after a brief but highly publicised trial, and was sentenced to a modest punishment of one year in prison. He did not serve out his sentence, however; he died 30 December 1947, in the Valerius Clinic in Amsterdam, after two heart attacks.
Han (a diminutive version of Henri or Henricus) van Meegeren was born in 1889 as the third of five children of middle-class Roman Catholic parents in the provincial city of Deventer. He was the son of Augusta Louisa Henrietta Camps and Hendrikus Johannes van Meegeren, a French and history teacher at the Kweekschool (training college for schoolteachers) in the city of Deventer.
Early on, Han felt neglected and misunderstood by his father, as the elder van Meegeren strictly forbade his artistic development and constantly derided him. He was often forced by his father to write a hundred times, "I know nothing, I am nothing, I am capable of nothing." While attending the Higher Burger School, he met teacher and painter Bartus Korteling (1853–1930) who became his mentor. Korteling had been inspired by Johannes Vermeer and showed the young van Meegeren how Vermeer had manufactured and mixed his colours. Korteling had rejected the Impressionist movement and other modern trends as decadent, degenerate art, and his strong personal influence probably later led van Meegeren to rebuff contemporary styles and paint exclusively in the style of the Dutch Golden Age.