Tim’s Vermeer update

December 2nd, 2013

More on the documentary film, TIM’S VERMEER.


Can anyone do this?

The press has really sunken their teeth in it. Three new articles look at how Tim Jenison, an American tech wizard and compulsive inventor, believes he has discovered how Vermeer painted and then painted one to prove it. (see a quick summary of Tim’s story below).

Kurt Andersen of Vanity Fair looks at some of the technical aspects of the undertaking. Tim shows his cards and throws in a high-resolution image of his finished Vermeer to prove his point. To get yourself convinced or unconvinced, read the article, see Tim’s painting and then click here to see the original on which Tim’s reconstruction is based.

Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times registers the art history community’s first reactions. As you would expect, they are doubtful without being explicitly dismissive. I would suspect this not so much to avoid the unsavory prospect of being caught on the wrong side of history (remember how dreadfully wrong some got the Impressionists and Van Meegeren and how much they paid for it?) but for institutional good manners and an understandable apprehension about alienating the broad public which the movie targets and will likely win over. Could any one calculate how many more visitors will be pushing though the turnsyles of Vermeer museums if Tim’s Vermeer clinches an Oscar for best documentary feature?

Stefanie Cohen of the Wall Street Journal furnishes background information about the “optical question” posed by Steadman and then describes Tim’s venture reserving Philip Steadman’s iffy comment for last. Steadman’s meticulous investigation and lucid argumentation regarding Vermeer’s use the camera obscura eventually brought almost all art historians onboard his not-easy to-digest hypothesis (i.e. Vermeer used the camera and traced with it too), no easy trick for an art history outsider.

Will layman Tim do as well? Tim’s story has just begun to be told.

Tim’s Vermeer opens Dec. 6 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway, Manhattan. Opens Dec. 13 in Los Angeles, nationwide on Jan. 31.

“Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?)”
Kurt Andersen, Vanity Fair
November 29, 2013

“Engineering His Own Vermeer. Tim Jenison, an Inventor, Paints ‘The Music Lesson'”
Dave Itzkoff, New York Times
November 27, 2013

“A Man Obsessed by a Dutch Master: In ‘Tim’s Vermeer,’ a documentary co-produced by Penn and Teller, an inventor tries to reach into Vermeer’s bag of tricks”
Stefanie Cohen, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28, 2013

7 Responses to “Tim’s Vermeer update”

  1. Greg Gauthier

    Please forgive any ignorance displayed in this question. As a standing member of the “broad public”, I really know nothing of this work, aside from having seen it a few times in my life.

    I’m willing to set aside the fact that Jenison painted this thing with absolutely no painting knowledge or skill to begin with, on the grounds that perhaps he’s just a determined sauvant (after all, he did teach himself lathe-work, woodworking, lens construction, and of course advanced electronics and advanced computer graphics without formal education).

    But what of the supposed curvature in the sea-horse detail on the front panel of the virginals, that Jenison apparently discovered? Or the light/color gradations along the back wall of the studio, purportedly impossible to see with the naked eye?

    These were really the strongest points made in the documentary, to my mind. Of course, they don’t constitute conclusive proof of anything, but at the very least, it must be enough to call into question Vermeer’s having done this particular work without mechanical aids?

    Also, on a slightly less convincing note: the film mentions that the dutch kept extensive paper records of their tutelage and matriculation as painters. Yet, that Vermeer has none of this documentation. What does that suggest? In the film, they lamented it, for lack of clues as to his technique. But what struck me, was that this, combined with Jenison’s own experience, might indeed be evidence that he had been relying upon this mechanical aid, for lack of professional training.

    What do you think?

  2. Jonathan Janson


    Thanks so much for the very interesting comments. I would love to address each of your very good qusestions one at a time, but each would need more time than I have tonight. Sorry.

    I have not seen the film but, if I remember correctly, Vermeer’s is documented as having entered on the Delft St Luke Guild on December 29th of 1653 (click on this link to see Vermeer’s name on the original ledger of the Guild of St Luke now conserved in The Hague)


    It seems odd that the film would assert otherwise. Moreover, he was the guild headsman for two terms, which attests to the esteem which contemporary painter held him. He was also asked to give expertise on some allegedly false Italian master paintings. That we know little of a Dutch painter’s life, let alone his technical procedures, is to be expected and suggests nothing either one way or another.

    I am not too sure I can say anything about the curvature of the sea horses motif on the spinet. We must always remember that a great amount of environmental forces have altered the appearance of paintings made 350 years so what we take for the artist’s intentions may not correspond to them at all. Oh yes, even great painters make mistakes.

    Moreover, what we do know about Vermeer’s painting technique, from observation and intense laboratory examination, is that his technique was in great part very, very similar to that of his close contemporaries: so Vermeer was not a self taught painter on two counts.

    May I give a few examples?

    Vermeer’s palette contains the same pigments as his contemporaries. He used the pin-and-string trick to work out perspective, as many interior and architectural painters of time (De Hooch, who painted like Vermeer did so as well and he worked about a 5 minute walk from Vermeer’s studio). Vermeer glazed organic red madder over a base of vermillion to create luminous reds that will not decay over time: see for example, the hat of Vermeer’s Girl with a Red Hat and the gown of the Milkmaid and the Music Lesson That’s sophisticated stuff discovered centuries before and handed down from one generation to the next. Vermeer seems to have used cheap blues (smalt) to define the basic forms and lighting of blue-colored objects in his scenes and them glazed them over with costly ultramarine (natural lapis lazuli was imported from Afghanistan vie Venice) to give them full color, let’s say, less expensively. These are only a few example of what we know about Vermeer’s technique but they were probably rather well-known to any painter talented European painter.

    As for detail, Vermeer, although accomplished, is nothing really special, at least if you are good terms with Dutch fine painters. Please look at this wonderful high-resolution image of the hanging carpet in Gerrit Dou’s Young Woman at the Spinet.


    Isn’t it amazing? Vermeer never approached that level of detail (I don’t think he wanted to). In fact, in respects to his “competitors” the fijnschilders (fine painters) of Leiden, the most characteristic aspect of his technique is its broadness. Look closely at the Girl with a Pearl Earring, it could be painted in a few painting sessions.

    I am sorry to be so technical but this issue is an eminently technical issue and without getting into the fine points and covering lots and lots of ground, it’s really hard to make a case either way. From an art historical point of view, to be truly debatable, a documentary film , as good as it may be, won’t do (at least for specialists who in the long term will decided the validty or not of Tim’s theories). A rigorously researched, clearly-written book is indispensible to state a case like Tim’s. Fact checking and perhaps five or ten years of and back and forth will tell us who really comes out on top. How many of us have that kind of time or patience any more?

    BTW, I sincerely don’t want to give you the impression that I know everything and that you or anyone else might know less, but Vermeer’s painting has been 45-year passion for me so it’s hard for me to stop once I get started. Unfortunately, I am also a painter.

    I look forward to seeing Tim’s Vermeer, and, naturally, any of your comments as well.

  3. Jack Saylor

    Since Vermeer can’t speak from the grave, is not his painting “The Art of Painting” his statement about how he and others painted in the day??? Where are the mirrors and camera obscura? Perhaps he painted this as a diversion to throw art historians off while he secretly painted in a room with optical inventions? I don’t think so. Seems the models would have outed him, unless they were in on his little secret too. I think the speculation and investigation about artists materials techniques and methods of the 17th century is wonderful and thought provoking, but the idea this movie seems to portray that an untrained artist can do this with the right device AND THEREFORE THAT IS HOW WE THINK VERMEER DID IT goes too far.

  4. Jonathan Janson

    Jack, you have some interesting points. Here’s a few of mine.

    It is known that Vermeer’s studio was on the map of connoisseurs (two such visits by knowledgeable travelers are documented) . He also sold paintings of his colleagues in his home (a normal activity then) and he was a major figure in the Delft guild of artists and artisans. Ergo, lots of eyes were focused on his studio, including his models as you say. I am not sure if there exists much proof at all that artists of the time hid their materials methods or technology–on the contrary. Constantijn Huygens made his rounds to painters’ studios promoting the camera obscura (an optical device which Vermeer may have used). Durer circulated detailed etchings of a drawing machine. On the other hand, the only report of an artist’s secret that I am aware of is Rembrandt’s etching methods. Did the film furnish any documentary evidence of painters who tried to withhold secrets? I haven’t seen it yet.

    In any case, it seems unlikely that new members of the guild could be sworn into secrecy seeing how many came and went. One would imagine that the vast number of apprentices did not become interesting artists whom 20th-century art historians would be able to track down 350 years later, but simple folk trying tried to learn a trade that would be better than breaking one’s back unloading cargo on an Amsterdam dock or frightening pirates off the coast of China.

    One could argue that Vermeer did not take on apprentices in order to keep his secret hidden but this strikes me somewhat as the invisible-dragon-in-my-garage argument. The proof that an invisible dragon does indeed inhabit my garage is that everyone who has ever been to my garage failed to see him. Many painters had apprentices, many simply didn’t.

  5. James Blake

    Saw the documentary today – more-or-less worth watching, I’d say, though it doesn’t contain enough to let you make a real assessment of its ideas. But it seems clear that the strong version of Tim Jenison’s hypothesis – that he’s discovered exactly how Vermeer painted “The Music Lesson” – is wrong. The painting has a pinhole, but Tim makes no use of one, therefore, presumably, he’s not painted his reproduction in the same way as Vermeer. The documentary was also disappointing in giving no airtime to critics of Tim’s idea, or to addressing questions such as Vermeer’s development through his career, or the ever-changing patterns of floor tiles in his paintings which surely undermines the idea that Vermeer was purely painting real rooms in front of him.

  6. Mark Walmsley

    Here is The Guardian’s take – that the techniques are perfectly possible, but utterly beside the point.


  7. James Blake

    This piece includes the most interesting commentary I’ve read on the film so far, by Morgan Meis:


Leave a Reply