Tim’s Vermeer

Last night, Phillip and I watched a terrific documentary named Tim’s Vermeer.

It’s about an inventor and millionaire owner of a computer company, named Tim Jenison, and his obsession with the painter Johannes Vermeer. Specifically, Tim wants to know why Vermeer’s paintings look so different from those of his contemporaries. Even more specifically, Tim wants to know why Vermeer’s paintings look so photo-realistic, centuries before photography was invented.

Tim’s Vermeer was directed by Penn and Teller (the magicians). Tim Jenison is a long time friend of Penn Jillette. I didn’t feel that there was anything outstanding about the documentary itself. It was the story that made this film stand out for me.

Tim Jenison believed that Vermeer used something more than a camera obscura, as is commonly believed. (Apparently, no one knows how Vermeer produced the paintings he did.) In his quest, Tim invented a mirror system similar to what he believed Vermeer might have used.

When early tests of his mirror system seemed successful, Tim set out on a goal to “paint a Vermeer”, despite the fact that he has no painting experience. He chose to recreate “The Music Lesson”, using his mirror setup. It was a multi-year mission that required building, in exacting detail, a duplicate of the room the original painting was staged in. The lighting had to be the same. Even the chemical makeup of the paint had to be identical to what Vermeer might have used. All this had to be planned, and executed, before the painting began.

There is an ethical question raised by Tim’s quest, however: If he, as non-painter, is successful, what does this say about Johannes Vermeer’s status as a painter of masterpieces?

It’s a fascinating journey, and a film worth seeing.

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