Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

Tim’s Vermeer — Film Review

Tim’s Vermeer

Directed by Teller



This is a film that is going to appeal mainly to people who have a special interest in art history or painting.  It may have some appeal to the museum-going general public, but the audience on the night I attended was sparse.  There is not a lot of action — no, that’s not right.  There is not any action, except the slow process of creating a painting stroke by stroke — sort of like watching ice melt, for those of you on the East Coast.  But that can be very interesting, and it is, but you have to be interested in painting.  If you have ever tried to paint anything with any kind of realistic likeness, you’ll understand what I mean.

This film is slow moving and cerebral.  It is a documentation, a realization, of a theory advanced by artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco in 2001 that Renaissance masters like Van Eyck and Vermeer and others across Europe used optical techniques incorporating lenses and mirrors to create their stunningly accurate realistic images.  They did not just eyeball their subjects to realize the kind of microscopic accuracy that characterizes the Dutch Masters style on a painted canvas.  Tim Jenison, an inventor from Texas with no particular ability in art or painting, became familiar with Hockney’s theory and hatched the crazy idea to replicate Jan Vermeer’s studio, materials, and techniques from scratch and recreate one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Music Lesson, himself, using the techniques suggested by Hockney and Falco.  The film documents this process with attention to all the minutiae one might find in one of Vermeer’s paintings.

I saw this when I was rather tired after a long, busy weekend, and I started feeling a sense of tedium even though the subject and the process were very interesting.  We get to see shots of mixing paint from pigments, grinding a lens, carving a table leg on a lathe, building a studio, and gradually watching the painting take shape a few strokes at a time over a period of, I think, 213 days.  The result is a flawless replica of a Vermeer masterpiece.  Jenison takes it to David Hockney, who grades it favorably, and there is a discussion of the process and the significance of Jenison’s experiment.

Jenison did not prove that Vermeer used lenses and mirrors in order to paint.  Jenison’s experiment is akin to Thor Heyerdahl’s sailing of Kon-tiki from the shores of Peru to Polynesia.  Heyerdahl’s experiment refuted skeptics who said such a voyage was not possible.  It did not prove that anyone ever did sail such a route in such a vessel, but it opened an avenue of interpretation of other evidence that might have been closed off by dismissal or the presumption of fantastical improbability.  Jenison showed that using only materials and techniques available during Vermeer’s time, he could indeed replicate Vermeer’s achievement as an untrained painter.  This does not show that Vermeer painted this way, because there is no documentation of how Vermeer worked, but coupled with the fact that there is no documentation of Vermeer ever having been trained as an artist, the absence of a drawing beneath the painting that would have served as a guide and which was customary in the work of other artists of that time, and, most tellingly, I think, that some small “mistakes” can be discerned in Vermeer’s image that reflect distortions created by the use of a lens, all give the argument weight and strengthened plausibility.

It is a very interesting film that should be noted by painters, historians, and art students.  It presents a compelling case, but not a final conclusion, and I think it indicates a fruitful direction for further historical research.