Inventor Tim Jenison searches for the tools that might have been behind Vermeer’s photorealistic technique.
Directed by Penn Jillette
Opens at the Charles Theatre March 7
When you take a traditional drawing class, you’re taught the importance of observing what you’re drawing—all of the subject’s intimate, intricate details as a form in space. Between your eye looking from a distance, your brain translating, and your hand drawing, information is inevitably lost. That’s why it’s much easier to draw from a photograph a few inches away from your drawing.
In 17th-century Delft, of course, Johannes Vermeer did not have a camera. In the centuries before photography, artists often worked from direct observation, memory, or imagination. In the book Secret Knowledge, David Hockney argues that paintings began to look more realistic in this era because artists were secretly using optical devices like the camera obscura, in which a still life or figure is projected upside down onto a wall through a lens into a dark, enclosed space. Into this discussion comes Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary suggesting the Dutch painter was less a highly skilled draughtsman and more of an inventor.
Vermeer’s few known works (there are only about 34 paintings that are officially attributed to him) all share an uncannily photographic quality; “It seems like more than paint on canvas, it seems to glow, like an image on a movie screen,” offers the film’s director and narrator, showman Penn Jillette. The paintings are so full of highly rendered detail and realistic light that it seems impossible Vermeer didn’t use any optical tools. X-ray scans show no preliminary sketches under his paintings, though, and while Dutch artists of the time kept written records of their training, no such record exists for Vermeer. Is he a self-taught savant, or was he mining other, more scientific resources for his painting process?
Tim Jenison is a modest, self-proclaimed technology geek with a gray beard, disheveled hair, and a constantly furrowed brow. He has always been curious about how things work. As a kid, he disassembled and fixed a broken player-piano, and then taught himself how to play music by slowing it down. In the ’90s he became a computer and video pioneer, inventing Video Toaster, a program that converts PCs into TV studios for live broadcasting, and LightWave, an Emmy-winning software program for rendering 3-D images.
It’s the inventor in Jenison that draws him to seek out the inventor in Vermeer, feeling kinship with him. He resolves to tease out the mystery behind the painter’s photorealistic technique—centuries ahead of its time—and paint his own reproduction of one of Vermeer’s works, reminding us all the while that he is not at all a painter.
Jenison begins experimenting. He sets up a camera obscura but finds that, while it helps with the drawing, it’s impossible to match colors accurately, since the only light in the dark room is the projected image. After traveling to London to see some Vermeer paintings in person, he’s sure there must be a way to match the colors of the painting to the colors of the room using 17th-century technology. He starts with the foggy idea of comparing two colors with a mirror, which eventually leads to a simple-enough contraption. The subject is set up perpendicular to the painting surface, and a mirror is set up at a 45-degree angle between them, facing the subject. As the mirror hovers above the painting surface, Jenison is able to simultaneously see the edge of the mirror’s reflection and the surface, making the process a purely objective one of matching color and tone.
Next, he gets to work constructing his own scale model of “The Music Lesson.” He chooses this painting because of its complex completeness; you can deduce the size of the window in relation to the figures, and you can reconstruct the specific furniture and instruments. Jenison travels to Delft to further study Vermeer’s actual working conditions, the north-facing light, and the architecture. Scenic views of Delft are cut between shots of Jenison learning to make paint (only the pigments Vermeer would’ve had access to), commissioning a ceramicist to make an exact replica of the white pitcher in “The Music Lesson,” and even taking measurements of the chair that Vermeer used in the painting.
It takes over half a year for Jenison and his small team to construct everything. Somewhat frantic shots focus mostly on Jenison making plaster casts, woodworking, using a 3-D modeling program. He tinkers with a lens and mirror. Finally, he paints. A camera set up above his worktable documents his deliberate color-mixing and his fastidious hand-painting of slow, straight, and ornate lines. We watch his results take shape slowly.
Jillette, part of whose claim to fame is his skepticism, concludes in the film that Jenison transforms Vermeer into a “fathomable genius.” For some, this may strip away the magic of his paintings. But art is about problem-solving, and for Vermeer, perhaps, the problem was perception. The film celebrates inventors like Jenison and Vermeer as creative problem-solvers. While piecing together the puzzle of the artist’s technique, Jenison immerses himself in this pursuit of understanding. And in so doing, he gives us a new way to look at Vermeer, allowing us to blur the distinctions between art and science.
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