We’ve long been romanticized by the concept of the divine artist, blessed with otherworldly talent. Tim’s Vermeer isn’t any less in awe of great masters such as Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It just proves masterworks take more than pixie dust: They take hard work.
The film chronicles the unlikely discovery of a Texas inventor, Tim Jenison, who believes he’s found the key to how the 17th-century artist painted with such photorealistic detail 150 years before the daguerreotype.
Conspiracy theories have abounded, many of them focusing on his possible use of camera obscura (a device that projects an image on a wall or screen).
Jenison’s belief is that some of Vermeer’s most famous paintings (he left behind 34) were done not just with a camera obscura-like contraption, but with a mirror that enabled him to exactly copy the images reflected.
By creating a rough approximate of this, Jenison (who had never painted before in his life) finds he can draw brilliantly detailed paintings.
He sets out to prove his theory by exactly reproducing Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, recreating the precise conditions he painted in.
Jenison turns a San Antonio warehouse into a replica of Vermeer’s studio, right down to period-accurate lenses, paint dyes and costumes. It took nearly a year to build the studio, and four more to paint his Vermeer.
Jenison is a bearish, inquisitive engineer who made millions with the early computer graphics software company he founded, NewTek. He also happens to be buddies with the illusionist duo Penn and Teller, who decided to document Jenison’s audacious experiment. Teller (the silent one) directs, while Penn Jillette (a producer) serves as an on-camera interviewer in the film.
It’s a great irony that a story about the difficult realities behind a captivating image should come from a pair of illusionists. Part of the drama in Tim’s Vermeer comes from always expecting Jillette to suddenly pull the rug out and yell “Presto!” – and reveal their film to be merely a clever put-on.
But magicians are really craftsman who labor through endless practice to perfect a smooth sleight of hand and seamless misdirection.
In Vermeer, they recognize a fellow illusionist, one who has shrouded his astonishing technique in mystery for centuries.
Jenison’s tedious demonstration (“like watching paint dry,” he jokes) is quite convincing. He also gains the endorsement of famed British artist David Hockney, whose book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters argued that lenses and optics went into masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and others.
Whether Tim’s Vermeer proves unequivocally how Vermeer worked is a question for art historians, not film critics. But the film – an ode to craftsmanship – establishes without a doubt that many of the traits we reserve for other fields – dedication, ingenuity – are also inherent to the artistic process. Ta-da.