Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter who lived in the 17th century in Delft in the Netherlands. His works are remarkable for their purity of light and form, qualities that are rare in paintings even today. He was keenly aware of the optical effects of color. The diffuse highlights Vermeer achieved are comparable to those seen in a camera obscura, an optical device much like a box camera.
"Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johann Vermeer
One of his most famous paintings is “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” which hangs in a gallery in the Hague. The work has become even more well-known through the publication of a novel by Tracy Chevalier in 2001, aptly entitled “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” It is a fictionalized story of a young Dutch girl who became a maid in Vermeer’s household.
“Tim’s Vermeer” is the true story of Tim Jenison, an inventor who became acquainted with the famous duo, Penn and Teller, who wrote and directed the film under discussion here. Tim’s use of technology in his work and his newly-acquired interest in the work of Vermeer was sparked by David Hockney’s book entitled “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces,” published in 2002.
Both Hockney and Tim Jemison sought answers to why Vermeer, as well as some of his contemporaries, created their paintings filled with optical details that were obviously too precise for the naked eye to catch. Their question was “Would lenses, mirrors and the camera obscura (dark room) have been known to these artists of the 17th century, and did they use them in their work?
"The Music Lesson" by Johann Vermeer
Tim Jenison then set out on his four-year journey to build an exact replica of the room depicted in Vermeer’s painting called “The Music Lesson.” Building the room alone took 213 days. Tim’s studio faced north exactly the way Vermeer’s studio did. He determined to use only the hardware that the Dutch artist could have used, leading him to grind his own glass lenses which he polished by hand. He also used only pigments that Vermeer had at his disposal. His project was to duplicate Vermeer’s painting “The Music Lesson,” using exactly the same method that Vermeer used. He started his work in his San Antonio warehouse, and traveled to Vermeer’s hometown Delft, in the Netherlands, and to Buckingham Palace in London, where “The Music Lesson” is on display.
Tim determined that he had enough evidence that Vermeer used a lens and mirrors to aid him in his painting. He painted the way a camera sees. In “The Music Lesson,” the light coming through the window falls on the wall unequally as it travels farther into the room. It is impossible for a painter to see that, but a camera can; a mirror can.
Tim had some difficulty when he had to paint a carpet in the picture. The stitching in the rug and its fringe required great detail. The scroll work on the piano also required meticulous detail. It occurred to him to use a concave mirror instead of a flat one; his idea worked.
"Girl with a Red Hat" by Johann Vermeer
Tim Jemison concluded, confirming David Hockney’s thinking in his theoretical work, that Vermeer’s photorealistic work showing gradations of light in his paintings could only have occurred through a knowledge of technology using mirrors and lenses. It was also determined that Vermeer’s painting “The Girl in the Red Hat,” was the first of his works to use his newly-found methodology.
The film “Tim’s Veneer” is an advanced art course. It is an exciting adventure to witness the detailed way that Tim Jemison daub’s at the canvas while holding a mirror, eliminating the need for sketches and unnecessary lines. The work was tedious for him, and assuredly must have been for Vermeer also.