Tim's Vermeer: Portrait of Genius, Technology, and Obsession

Directed by Teller
PG-13 Sony Pictures, 80 minutes

Tim Jenison has never painted a picture in his life. What would make such a man think he could re-create a masterpiece such as Johannes Vermeer's The Music Lesson? There have long been rumors that Vermeer (1632-1675) might have used optical aids to capture the minute details for which he has been acclaimed. That possibility, not Vermeer's exalted reputation, is what fascinated Jenison–an inventor/geek who made a fortune in visual imaging and post-production work for Hollywood and television.

Jenison's six-year search to uncover the key to Vermeer's precision is the subject of this fascinating documentary, which is directed by Teller and whose primary interviewer is his partner in magic, Penn Jillette, a friend of Jenison's. As noted above, Jenison wasn't the first to suspect that Vermeer's stunning use of light, color, and minute detail required the use of optical aids. In 2001, British scholar Philip Steadman put forth a compelling case that Vermeer might have used a camera obscura, a thesis shared by famed painter David Hockney. (Both men appear in the film.) Is it possible that one of Western civilization's greatest painters was also among the first to understand the implications of new optical technology? Vermeer lived at a time in which the Dutch were the richest nation in Europe and Dutch scientists pioneered in microscope lenses. In Jenison's mind, if Vermeer was using optics, he was as much a tracer as an artist and someone who had access to the same materials, studio conditions, and optical devices ought to be able to recreate a Vermeer. It was an audacious assertion, especially for one with an untrained hand–Jenison had in mind painting a Vermeer, not a likeness of one.

Vermeer's The Music Lesson
How does one even begin such an undertaking? It helps if you're rich and handy building things. How else could one build a replica of Vermeer's Delft studio in San Antonio, complete with the sort of tapestries, glass, and ceiling beams used in the 17th century? How else can one afford to grind glass as it would have done in the 17th century, or acquire the materials for the expensive pigments Vermeer used? Indeed, how else could one obtain a private viewing of a painting owed by Queen Elizabeth? Teller takes us inside Jenison's quest and makes the best case yet that Vermeer was as skilled with optics as with the brush.  

So did Jenison match the work of an undisputed master? You be the judge. For me, one of the remarkable things about this documentary is that it reveals one mystery and leaves others intact. It's still a near-miracle that so much talent could reside in one man, and the painstaking lengths taken by Jenison to tackle just one painting enhances my understanding of why there are just 34 known Vermeer canvases. Teller's documentary is a testament to genius, obsession, technology and God-given talent. If you think you are a person who does not like documentaries, trust me and rent Tim's Vermeer. I can practically guarantee that you will again never think of documentaries or Vermeer in the same way.  Rob Weir

Photo by me of detail from Young Woman with a Water Pitcher that shows photographic-like reverse imagery.

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