Illusionist duo Penn & Teller's documentary Tim's Vermeer, now in limited theatrical release, controversially suggests that 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used optical aids to execute his beloved pictures. The concise 80-minute film traces the quest of San Antonio, Tex.-based digital video entrepreneur, perpetual tinkerer and untrained painter Tim Jenison to exactingly recreate the setting of Vermeer's photorealistic interior The Music Lesson (1662-65) and commit it to canvas using a custom camera obscura and mirror gadgetry of Jenison's own devising.
This technology is the same sort that narrator Penn Gillette, along with Teller, who directed, and Jenison himself believe Vermeer used. On-screen experts who share that conviction include contemporary artist and author David Hockney and University College London professor Philip Steadman, who penned Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces (2001).
Vermeer—whose Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), on loan from the Netherlands' Mauritshuis, is currently on view at New York's Frick Collection—has long been the subject of academic discord. Scholars debate how this painter, with no history of formal training, captured stunning optical details that experts maintain are too precise for the naked eye to perceive or that are reminiscent of effects created by optical devices like the camera lucida and camera obscura. Would it diminish Vermeer's talents if the artist was found to have used lenses or mirrors in addition to geometry in creating his light-drenched, detail-saturated masterpieces?
"No," Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., told A.i.A. by phone Monday. "There were lots of lenses available in the Netherlands in the 1600s and many artists inventing new techniques to achieve novel effects." He added that "many artists could have used the same technology and failed to come up with paintings that are lasting and beautiful and speak to humanity" in the way that Vermeer's do.
The filmmakers concur. Teller told NPR last week that if Vermeer used a method like Jenison's, "that makes Vermeer better, not worse." It would mean that Vermeer not only had "beautiful ideas" and was "capable of miraculous compositions, but that he was willing to put in the incredibly intense work to translate those ideas to paint on canvas."
Jenison spent 130 days painting after 213 days of constructing the tableau depicted in the painting, mostly from materials that were available in Vermeer's time. Jenison modeled the room using 3D technology. He then made his own lens, had musical instruments, costumes and furnishings fabricated based on the specifications of the scene, sourced ceramic tableware in Delft, and even learned Dutch. He ground and mixed his own pigments. At one point Jenison remarks that if Vermeer used a process like his, "it wasn't a time-saver." All told, Jenison's project took more than four years.
It began in 2002, after one of Jenison's daughters gave him Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001), which suggests these artists used optics and lenses in their studio practices. Wheelock acknowledged the existence of scholarly disagreement concerning Vermeer's techniques. There is "some evidence of underpainting in Vermeer," and expert conservators have noted "design changes" in The Music Lesson, Wheelock said. Such evidence would indicate that Vermeer sketched or blocked out scenes, thus complicating Jenison's theory that the work was created using an optical aid. But "we have no drawings by Vermeer," Wheelock added, and the scant documentary record allows for plentiful conjecture as to whether Vermeer's only exceptional tool was his brilliant eye.
Did the artist paint miraculous embellishments of his visual inspiration freehand, or did he methodically recreate scenes using pre-photographic technology? The film is not doctrinaire, but makes no claims of objectivity either. Steadman seems to speak for all involved when he gives his view: "Painters can do miraculous things, but some things are more impossible than others."
Tim's Vermeer is scheduled to open in select cities in January 2014. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last week that the film has been short-listed for an Oscar in the documentary feature category.