“Tim’s Vermeer,” a charming documentary, delves into one modern man’s obsession with discovering how Johannes Vermeer created incredibly photorealistic paintings in the 17th century.
Did the Dutch master use optical technology to produce such radiant, detailed images with near-photographic precision?
Gray-bearded with a belly hanging over his jeans, Tim Jenison looks like he walked out of an episode of “This Old House.” A technology entrepreneur who made money developing video digitizers and digital art programs in the 1980s, he is neither an artist nor a scholar.
But his fixation with Vermeer drives him to invent an optical device, stage a scene pictured in a Vermeer painting down to the last detail (tapestry, furniture, instruments, etc.) in his garage and paint it.
Directed by Teller (the illusionist from the act Penn and Teller), the film spans Jenison’s eight years seeing his concept come to fruition.
He consults British artist David Hockney, who in the book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Art of the Great Masters” claims art and science were friends in the golden age, and notes that Vermeer’s neighbor made microscopes. Jenison also talks to Philip Steadman, a scholar who believes Vermeer used a camera obscura.
Jenison tweaks a camera obscura by adding a mirror, which hovers over a canvas. It reflects the subject back to the artist, allowing him to copy details magnified beyond the capacity of natural vision and to color match. Without any painting or drawing experience, Jenison reproduces a photograph in oil paint with eerie accuracy.
After demonstrating the device to Hockney and Steadman, he goes to town.
He decides to recreate Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” which hangs in Buckingham Palace, and transforms his garage into the room depicted in the painting.
He mixes plaster, cuts wood and even saws his own lathe in half — on purpose — to get the exact proportions of the table in the painting. He mixes pigments and makes his own paint.
Jenison’s painting is not a Vermeer, but it comes astonishingly close.
Endearing in his devotion to his project, and to figuring out whether Vermeer used more than his natural ability to make his masterpieces, Jenison very well may have solved a mystery.
Ingenuity and invention have always played a role in art. Even the humble paintbrush was once a revelatory advancement in art technology. “Tim’s Vermeer” does not strip Vermeer of his artistic cachet, but may add “geek” to his job description.
Starring Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney
Directed by Teller
Running time 1 hour, 20 minutes