Tim’s Vermeer – Shaking Things Up?

November 18th, 2013

Tim Jenison

In Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor and giant of video and post-production software for home computers, (Video Toaster, LightWave, TriCaster) attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in European art: How did the seventeenth- century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer manage to paint so realistically – 150 years before the invention of photography?

In the search of an answer, Jenison began by working off of the theories set forth in David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, both of which allege that Vermeer employed an optical device, the camera obscura, as an aid to his painting. Fascinated by the theories of Hockney and Steadman (both outsiders to the art history enclave), Jenison built his own camera obscura but found something was amiss. He immediately came to suspect that not only had Vermeer used some sort of optical device to trace the drawing of his motif onto his canvas (as Steadman had for all practical purposes proved) but must have used it to register the colors and tonal values of his paintings which have been long admired for their uncanny precision, apparently out of reach of his contemporaries.

While viewing in person Vermeer’s Music Lesson, perhaps the artist’s most “optically based” work, Jenison, a video engineer well versed in analyzing images scientifically, became firmly convinced that the work presents optical information that cannot be gathered by retinal observation. Pondering how Vermeer could have achieved such results, he invented—the idea came to him as he was relaxing in a bath tub—a simple, easy-to-use optical device, whose technology was easily within the reach of the seventeenth-century artist, and painstakingly taught himself to paint with it. The mirror of Jenison’s device reflects an object in such a way that a painter can duplicate on his canvas not only an object’s contours on canvas but its colors and tones as well. Putting his theory to the ultimate test, Jenison built a perfectly scaled “set” of the Music Lesson in a San Antonio studio and “repainted” Vermeer’s Music Lesson from it using the device. After various false starts, Jenison learned how to handle the device with greater efficacy, how to hand grind paint and how to domesticate paint and brush, an entierly new experience for the digital engeneer. He employed seven months to complete the work, which he claims is easily accurate enough to uphold his hypothesis.

Although Jenison admits that there is no historical evidence that proves his hypothesis, he believes that if his method for transferring form, color and tone form with a mechanical device to a canvas were used by Vermeer, a chapter of art history would have to be rewritten.

Jenison’s friends, the illusionists and professional debunkers Penn & Teller, united with him to fully document his years- long investigation into the mysterious methods of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. The movie includes commentary from Jillett, Hockney and Steadman. Speaking of the film, Hockney said, “It might disturb quite a lot of people,” since it forces you to question everything that you thought you knew about great art and the people responsible for it. But, as Jillette points out, it doesn’t argue that they weren’t geniuses; it just shows that they were fathomable geniuses, rather than unfathomable ones.

video interviews:
Click here to view a YouTube interview with Jenison and hear his his ideas on Vermeer at 34:35 minutes into the video.

Another interveiw with Jenison, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfsbSK0WPqU

Variety, “Penn and Teller’s uncanny crowdpleaser begs the question, is it still a masterpiece if an amateur could do it?”, Peter Debruge

director: Penn Jillette
producers: Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler
principal cast: Penn Jillette, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
cinematographer: Shane F. Kelly
editor: Patrick Sheffield
music: Conrad Pope
u.s. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
canadian dist.: Mongrel Media
release date; 2013
duration: 80 minutes
production website: http://sonyclassics.com/timsvermeer/

4 Responses to “Tim’s Vermeer – Shaking Things Up?”

  1. Thomas

    Interesting. I’ll be on the lookout for this at the theater.
    Though I’m troubled by some of his comments in that interview…
    He’s commenting about the back wall in the music lesson…

    “The brightest part of the wall is right up next to the window… the darkest part is down behind the man… The ratio is almost pure black and almost pure white. But if we were in that room, it would read as all beige, and that’s what you would paint. If you can’t [see it] you can’t paint it.”
    The interviewer asks “Is it possible Vermeer trained his eye…?”
    “You can’t. The retina is built the way it’s built and you can’t see that.”

    I find none of these statements to be convincing. No, the spots in question on the wall don’t appear to be pure white or pure black. And even worse… You can’t train your eye?! That’s preposterous.

  2. Jonathan Janson

    Thanks Thomas,
    I think Tim means that your eyes rapidly adjust to lighting conditions in order to identify objects. Hence, in the case of the white wall, we see the whiteness even when it is immersed in deep shadow. No one ever says that a yellow cloth is brown in the shadows (which is the pigment painters use to render yellow in deep shadow), they still say it is yellow because we interpret shadows instantaneously in order to guarantee identification of objects and their location in space. I do think Tim exaggerates a bit because I, for one, really do see different shades of gray in a real white wall, not just white. Even as a beginning student, when I was hardly aware of the issue, I saw that walls were darker when they were farther from the light source, it was just that I had not the vaguest idea how to render the effect with inert pigments. I think Vermeer was, yes, as Tim says, more accurate in registering tone, but that it could be a combination of a very sensitive eye, the camera obscura and trial and error. In my 40+ years experience as a painter, I have often discovered more things things by mistake rather than logic or observation. Painters in Vermeer’s time, even Vermeer, painted as much by convention as by observation of reality. Gombrich teaches us this and my experience confirms it. Note than painters, especially the Dutch, systematically made the contours of distant objects slightly out of focus. Ter Borch was a master of this technique. I am 100% sure they did NOT learn this from optics, but from practice at the easel. That is, when some painter began roughing in the figures in the background he noticed that the rougher they were painted the more distant they looked. He then applied his empirical finding systematically, obviously this new “trick” was observed by other painters and imitated becoming a codified convention. That is, much of the advancement in painting is not grounded in theory or observation, but by chance happenings in the painted medium. Those outside the painter’s world rarely suspect this. Art historians accept this sort mechanism for abstract forms of painting, that painters respond to what they paint and reformulate their objectives, but rarely grasp how it works in realist painting.

    Sorry to make it so long, but the issue is fascinating.


  3. Thomas

    Hi Jonathan,
    Tim’s quick dismissal to the question of whether or not Vermeer might have trained his eye is what really got to me.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about realist painters embracing those chance discoveries. One might even pose an argument that from a technical standpoint, realist painters rely more on that kind of experience than abstract painters. A fascinating subject indeed.

    Lawrence Gowing sort of followed this abstraction hypothesis in his text (to an extent). Have you come across Nigel Konstam’s theories about Vermeer’s technique? (And Rembrandt, while he’s at it.) He made a few videos which included a “reconstruction.” They’re a little hard to find on youtube but you can see them here, which I linked on my blog:

    I love all of these experiments… and while they’re at once informative and entertaining (however likely or unlikely), it’s a little off-putting how most theories overlook the elephant in the room which is painterly experience and hard earned skill. I wish Hockney’s book would have ended with such a statement… “Or, maybe they were just really good painters.”

  4. Paula S.

    I admire greatly the beauty of your website.

    I’d love to own postcards of Vermeer’s art. Ever since I read The World is My Home, the autobiography of James Michener, the novelist. I do a lot of looking at art postcards–which are hard to find in art museums–at least the ones I want.

    Michener, who had a vast art collection, talks about his carrying around art postcards which helped him out of trouble sometimes. I believe it.

    If you buy this great book from Amazon–why not also buy a collection of Vermeer postcards? A generous collection!

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