Scholars and connoisseurs have wondered for several centuries how the painter Johannes Vermeer managed to make his works seemingly glow from within while achieving virtual photorealistic detail long before photography was invented.
Well, it turns out to have been done with mirrors — a combination of lenses and mirrors to be more precise — if you accept the hypothesis that’s painstakingly demonstrated in the fascinating documentary “Tim’s Vermeer.”
That’s Tim Jenison, by the way, a multi-millionaire software designer and amateur inventor. His background in video imaging (he created the Video Toaster and Lightwave 3D) made him wonder if Vermeer, in addition to being an artist of genius might have been a fellow “tinkerer” and “geek” who used technology to make beautiful images.
Jenison became even more curious after reading two 2001 books, one by the painter David Hockney and one by the architect Philip Steadman, proposing that Vermeer had used a camera obscura (all the rage in the 17th century) as an assist. The proposition outraged many in the art world who saw it as a suggestion that Vermeer, considered by some to be the greatest painter who ever lived, was a cheat.
He was curious enough to test the camera obscura (think pinhole camera without the film) hypothesis and quickly discovered that while it was possible to trace the outline of an image, as Hockney suggested, it was impossible to achieve verisimilitude by painting over it. So he decided to learn how it might have been done. He did, too, though it’s important to emphasize that word “might.”
It would be wrong to give too much away, since part of the fun of “Tim’s Vermeer” is watching him figure it out, a process involving more than one dead end.
The goal he set for himself was to recreate Vermeer’s masterpiece, “The Music Lesson.” That involved duplicating the room and setting Vermeer used in the painting in a San Antonio warehouse, and meant building,with an assist from his own 3D imaging software, many of the furnishings himself, including an ornate 17th-century harpsichord. This was in addition to grinding his own lenses, mixing his own paints — but confining himself to the same sort of materials Vermeer would have used.
In all, Jenison, a man of impassive, gray-bearded countenance and dry sense of humor, devoted five years of his life to this project, an endeavor he compares at one point to “watching paint dry.” And there are moments, watching him laboriously replicating an intricate latticework of interlocking seahorses on the harpsichord or the stitches in an oriental carpet, when it’s tempting to agree.
On the whole, however, “Tim’s Vermeer” is a mind-boggling marvel that’s consistently involving as you watch Jenison overcome each new challenge. It helps that Jenison’s friend Penn Jillette is on hand to liven things up as observer and narrator, while Jillette’s comedy-magic partner Teller makes his directorial debut.
So, what does it mean when, after painting for 130 days, Jenison completes a far-better-than-reasonable facsimile of “The Music Lesson”? Does it lessen Vermeer’s artistic greatness?
It’s hard to imagine anyone would think so. For one thing, while Jenison’s painting is an extraordinary reproduction, no one would suggest it could pass as a Vermeer. Something, some indefinable x-factor, is missing.
Or maybe it’s not so indefinable. As Jillette says, before Jenison’s experiment, Vermeer seemed “an unfathomable genius.” Now, if you find Jenison’s evidence convincing, he’s still a genius, but a fathomable one.