Film Review – Tim’s Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer

Where I went to art school, they didn’t actually teach you how to paint anything. You just kind of showed up and either already knew what you were doing or you just figured something out. (I was in the latter camp, fyi.) But that’s a relatively new idea in art education. It used to be that an aspiring painter would study for years under a master, learning that person’s techniques and then adding his or her own spin on things if they ever went out on their own. Which makes the case of Johannes Vermeer somewhat interesting. He was a Dutch painter in the 1600’s, who made these incredibly detailed paintings that were known for a command of light and perspective. What stymies art historians is the lack of evidence regarding of his art training. His father was an art dealer, but there is no other information regarding his education. There are no drawings attributed to him, and no records of how he made the paintings that were so different from anything else being produced at the time.

Well, inventor and technologist Tim Jenison thinks he knows, and his ideas are documented in the film Tim’s Vermeer. He’s a friend of magicians Penn and Teller; Teller directs this film, while Penn Jillette produces and narrates. Jenison’s not an artist, and he knows nothing about painting. But he is obsessed with the work of Johannes Vermeer and is familiar with the theories regarding his technique. British Painter David Hockney and architecture professor Philip Steadman both have ideas regarding how Vermeer might have used lenses and a camera obscura, but neither theory overcomes the color distortion that occurs from working with their techniques. (The movie explains this far better than I ever could. It’s not that complicated, but it makes more sense when you see it.) A lot of art historians take umbrage at the idea Vermeer used technology to aid him in the making of these images, because somehow it becomes “cheating” when the artist has mechanical help.

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So Jenison adds a couple of extra mirrors to the theory, and comes up with a method he believes Vermeer used. (Once again, please see the film for details. What can be fascinating to view is often dead boring to read.) And then he decides to recreate one of his favorite paintings, The Music Lesson. And he thinks he can, because the method he believes Vermeer used doesn’t actually require knowing how to paint. It’s mostly color matching. For reals. But he wants to do more than just make the painting, he wants to prove that his theory is possible within the constraints of what Vermeer had available at the time. So he learns to mix paints the way they would have in the 1600s. He grinds his own lenses for the camera obscura, because current lenses are too good. He designs a set to replicate the room in the painting, building his own furniture and getting models to pose in similar clothing. And then he paints a painting. It takes him 130 days, but he does it. Does it look like a Vermeer? Well, that would be spoiling things.

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Why should you care about how some 17th century painter did his thing? Because it’s cool. But beyond that, this movie is only sort of about Vermeer’s techniques. It’s actually about the creative spirit and how one guy’s obsession leads him to attempt to figure out something that has been bothering people for centuries. And while there may never be any definitive proof this is how Vermeer did it, it’s super fun to watch Tim’s brain work. He’s different than a lot of people, because when he gets excited about an idea, he has the time and money to follow it through as far as he wants. But more importantly, he has the drive and curiosity to get things done. You can see him getting sick of the damn thing after awhile, but he finishes it, because that is the kind of person he is. He has to know if his process will work.

On the technical side, this is a pretty straightforward documentary with a gentle sense of humor. The subject matter is not super deep, but it succeeds because it presents one man’s passion in a fun and interesting way. Jillette is obviously fond of his long-time friend Tim, and shares in his excitement to see how this will all play out. In the grand scheme of things, who really cares how Vermeer did it? This technique is not going to save a life or feed the hungry. But it’s important because many of the best parts of the human experience come from curiosity and the desire to know more. There are real mysteries out there. How cool would it be if we all shared in the excitement of discovery? Pretty freaking cool.




Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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