Did Vermeer paint by numbers? Tim Jenison, a software
innovator with lots of time, imagination and money to throw around, has an idea
that comes close to that. In Tim’s
Vermeer, the delightful new documentary narrated by Penn and directed by Teller,
we watch as Jenison tries out his theory: that Vermeer might have created his masterpieces
by putting his models in a camera obscura (a big dark room with a hole in the
wall), looking at the scene reflected in a mirror, and essentially matching the
lines and colors to achieve the precise realism whose technique has mystified
art historians since the 17th century.
It’s a wackadoodle theory, inspired by controversial ideas posited by the
architect Philip Steadman and by the artist David Hockney (both seen in the
film) and widely rejected by art historians. No matter, because Jenison’s obsession
is the basis for a playful, entertaining film.
Tim’s Vermeer takes
its tone from Jenison’s genial manner, accompanied by his old friend Penn on
his years-long adventure of trying to recreate a Vermeer. He begins with a small-scale
experiment, using a mirror-contraption and a photo of his father-in-law to
paint a perfect clone; it’s pretty amazing to watch.
Then Jenison, admittedly
no artist, takes on Vermeer’s The Music
Lesson, a complex painting of a man and woman at a virginal in a
light-filled, elaborately decorated room.
He spends about seven months just reproducing Vermeer’s room in his Texas studio; he builds the furniture,
learns to glaze glass to get the windows right. It’s a benign obsession, but
definitely obsessive. He hand-grinds pigments as Vermeer would have done, looks
at a mirror image and painstakingly matches the colors until a faithful-looking
painting emerges. Along the way he —
and Teller’s fluid, easygoing film — head to the Netherlands to see the
places Vermeer did, and to London where he tries to get a private audience with
The Music Lesson itself, tucked away
in Buckingham Palace, part of the Queen’s collection.
You might expect Penn & Teller, whose successful television
series “Bullshit!” was all about debunking commonly accepted ideas,
to be the skeptics here, or that the whole thing might be one of their illusions. But on-screen, Penn is much more forceful than Jenison in rejecting
the idea that Vermeer used some low-tech device — like his eyes.
Jenison and Penn have their rebuttal arguments ready off-screen
and on. When I talked to Jenison at a reception at the New York Film Festival, he
said he wasn’t convinced that Vermeer actually painted this way, because as a scientist
he can’t rule out other possibilities; he’s even exploring more. And when I told
Penn it was unlikely that Vermeer’s models took their camera obscura secret to their graves, he answered
that he assumed the models were Vermeer’s family members, and added that the
people who keep Penn & Teller’s secrets don’t give anything away. Good point.
Still, Vermeer would have needed the camera obscura and the mirror and the secrecy — all available to him, but really, that perfect storm of possibilities
veers toward conspiracy-land. I wasn’t convinced for a millisecond that
Vermeer used this technique, but I enjoyed every minute of Tim’s Vermeer.
Originally shown at the New York Film Festival, the film is now open in NY and LA (with other cities to come).