The photorealistic images achieved by 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer have baffled art experts for ages. How could such precision be possible in a time when mirrors were the latest innovation? Google “Girl With a Pearl Earring”, for example. It seems impossible for something so detailed, so incredibly vivid, to be created without the presence of a computer, or at the very least, a camera. And that’s not all. Thorough inspections of Vermeer’s paintings have revealed no evidence of outlining behind the paint. Was Vermeer able to simply walk up to a canvas and produce a virtual facsimile of his subjects using nothing but his eyes and natural light? Or was there some sort of secret technology at play?
This is the question that inventor and tech guru Tim Jenison sets out to answer in “Tim’s Vermeer”, a fascinating, extremely efficient documentary that observes Jenison’s recreation of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”. As we see over the course of this five-year undertaking, it’s much more complex than just reproducing a work of art. In order for it to work, Jenison’s experiment requires him to duplicate Vermeer’s exact working conditions from the 1600s, including the room in which he painted it and every stitch of furniture therein, all the way down to making his own paint (he even learns Dutch along the way). This might seem particularly daunting considering that Jenison has never painted anything in his life – and here he’s attempting to emulate one of the greatest painters of all time. Keep in mind, however, that artistic talent would only hinder his ability to prove that Vermeer indeed used an optical device; this, ultimately, would be a work of science. Trial and error includes building a contraption called a ‘camera obscura’, and a simple setup of mirrors that allows Jenison to duplicate an old photograph. He talks to experts on both sides of the art/science coin, including painter David Hockney and neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, who bolsters Jenison’s theory by comparing the spectrum of light in the original “The Music Lesson” to what the human eye is capable of registering, and therefore, reproducing. Actor and lifelong painter Martin Mull makes an appearance to have a look at one of Jenison’s early discoveries.
Produced by multi-talented stage/screen duo Penn & Teller (Teller directed the film and Penn Jillette lends some interesting perspective to the proceedings as a long-time friend of Jenison), “Tim’s Vermeer” will be an absolute delight for those who enjoy things like “MythBusters”, as well it will for art buffs, historians and obsessive problem-solvers. It’s a rather intimate chronicle, and the more we become acquainted with Jenison, the harder it is to tell which is more intriguing: the experiment or the man conducting it. The result of his work is remarkable, to be sure, and while the film doesn’t question Vermeer’s undeniable talent, it does suggest that his true vocation might have been of a more “left brained” nature, like Jenison’s.
“Tim’s Vermeer” opens this Friday at the E Street Cinema in Washington, DC.