Film Review: Tim's Vermeer

An original and endearing documentary from Penn &amp; Teller asks the question: How <i>did </i>he do that? To wit, did Johannes Vermeer go high-tech to paint his masterpieces, and if so, was that cheating?

A beguiling, unpretentious film, Tim’s Vermeer opens with its subject, Tim Jenison, explaining his project—quest might be the better word. Tim proposes to make an exact copy of Johannes Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, one of the celebrated works by the empyrean 17th-century Dutch master.

“It would be pretty remarkable if I can,” he says, pausing for effect. “Because I’m not a painter.”

Tim is an inventor and founder of NewTek, the company that produced DigiView, an early video digitizer, as well as Video Toaster (used to create special effects for the “Home Improvement” television series), LightWave 3D, TriCaster and other state-of-the-art stuff. A do-it-yourselfer even as a child, Tim once repaired a player piano and taught himself the keyboard by slowing down the music roll. He’s also a friend of Penn Juliette, the magician, who with his partner, Teller, decided to document Tim’s audacious undertaking. After all, painting a Vermeer, the master of light and color whose intricate, luminescent oils seem preternatural, would be an act of magic.

As narrator Penn explains it, the notion came to Tim after reading Secret Knowledge by artist David Hockney, who suggests that Vermeer used an optical device, some variation of the camera obscura, to paint his works. The camera obscura, Latin for “dark room,” employs a lens to project real images onto a blank surface, where they can be traced in minute detail, thus allowing artists to copy still-lifes with uncanny accuracy. Tim took the theory one step further, imagining how Vermeer might have used a combination of lenses and mirrors not only to reproduce tableaux but also to capture exceptionally subtle gradations of color and texture, to a degree impossible without the aid of technology. “There’s no explanation to the paintings without optics,” says Hockney, who, with art historian Philip Steadman, features prominently in the documentary.

Director Teller patiently records Tim’s trial-and-error approach to the improbable task. Tim chooses The Music Lesson, he says, because the painting is “so complete and so self-contained”—you can measure the proportions of the room and furniture—“a scientific experiment waiting to happen.” He travels to Delft, Vermeer’s city, to visit the artist’s studio, gauge the light, study pigmentation, and commission reproductions of certain objects d’art, such as a water jug that features prominently in the painting. He coaxes Queen Elizabeth to grant him a half-hour inside Buckingham Palace, where The Music Lesson hangs, to view the painting firsthand. Finally, back home in San Antonio, Texas, he rents warehouse space with a northern exposure where he sets about recreating the scene in the painting, building from scratch replicas of the tables and chairs, the mullioned windows, the ceiling timbers, the floor tiles, even the famous virginal (a kind of harpsichord) where the young Dutch girl practices her trills.

You must see the movie to discover if Tim succeeds, although anyone interested in the subject no doubt has read one of the many articles about the undertaking, but we can say the outcome is by no means assured. The work is exacting, as Tim makes plain as he struggles to capture the Persian rug draped over a table in the foreground. “Painting more dots,” he says, wearily, glancing at the video camera recording every brushstroke. “Ditto yesterday… More dots… You know, it gets old, painting this carpet.”

Tim’s Vermeer offers revelations that will make viewers reconsider art history, but Jenison’s stunt—call it a sleight of hand—isn’t mere legerdemain. As Penn points out, we moderns tend to separate art and technology, as though each happens in its own sphere, congruent but not concentric. He, Tim and Hockney argue instead that imagination is the mother of invention, that if we can envision an outcome, we will find a way to achieve it, and technology is often the means to that end. As Tim posits, “Was Vermeer a machine? Maybe Vermeer was strong enough to become a machine."