Tim's Vermeer: Penn, Teller, and a Tech Millionaire Versus Vermeer

First, let's get this out of the way: There is no Santa Claus. Now, on to a perhaps even harsher truth: There are certain indications that Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, whose 17th-century paintings — like Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Music Lesson — show an extraordinarily delicate touch and a finely attuned understanding of light, color, and composition, didn't just slap his images on the canvas freehand. He may have used an ingenious system of lenses and mirrors to reflect everything he saw before him right onto the canvas. Then, all he had to do was fill them in with his paintbrush. You could almost do it at home.

How do we know that Vermeer was actually painting the colors he saw in real life, as opposed to those he saw in his head?

And so someone has. A few years back, Tim Jenison, a San Antonio-based inventor, began to wonder exactly how Vermeer had achieved hyperrealist, near-photographic results in his paintings, particularly considering that x-rays of those pictures revealed no preliminary sketches on the canvas. David Hockney had already addressed the subject in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, in which he posited that painters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Caravaggio — the whole damned Old Master bunch, basically — relied on optical aids like the camera obscura and camera lucida. Jenison took the idea a little further, rigging a system of lenses and mirrors that Vermeer might have used, one that not only cast an outline of the image onto the canvas but reflected colors as well. Then he proceeded to build an obsessively detailed model of the room Vermeer painted in The Music Lesson, to see if he could produce his own version of the painting.

He pulls it off, sort of, in a paint-by-numbers, gilt-plywood-frame way, and Teller — the quieter half of the magic-debunking team Penn & Teller — records the whole arduous process in Tim's Vermeer. The point, as made repeatedly by Jenison and various other interviewees — including Hockney; Teller's partner, Penn Jillette; and Philip Steadman, whose book on Vermeer's possible use of optics, Vermeer's Camera, appeared the same year as Secret Knowledge — is that even if Vermeer did use a special optical doohickey, that doesn't make him a lesser artist. As Jillette says, we tend to think of Vermeer as an unfathomable genius. "Now he's a fathomable genius."

Tim Jenison
Shane F. Kelly / Sony Pictures Classics
Tim Jenison

There Penn and Teller go, explaining stuff again. And Tim's Vermeer is entertaining and informative, to a point. Jenison — who in the mid-1980s founded a company called NewTek, a pioneer in desktop video applications — is just nutty enough, in the good way. He describes and demonstrates the process of re-creating the virginal (basically, an early version of a spinet) seen in the painting, running off its decorative seahorse design on his laser printer. We watch as he undertakes the painstaking execution of the painting itself, which requires so much stillness and concentration that he suffers stiffness and muscle cramps. There's also an ill-fated encounter with a patio space heater.

But the charm of the whole enterprise wears off even before this movie's trim 80 minutes are up. Penn and Teller are bright guys, and their act can be fun in small doses. Yet Tim's Vermeer accentuates one of their worst impulses: They think they're mischievously raining on our parades when, really, they're not telling us much at all. Every five minutes in Tim's Vermeer, there's someone around to say, "Remember, this doesn't make Vermeer any less of a genius," but the subtext of the whole movie is a snicker along the lines of, "He wasn't that much of a genius." Jenison makes some intelligent points about the way art and science are often considered, wrongly, separate disciplines. Then he goes right off the rails, asserting that if Vermeer really did use these optical tools, then "we are seeing photographs. It's a photo."

Only a moron would believe that. Whether he used optic aids or not, you could probably call Vermeer an early photorealist. But his paintings weren't just detailed re-creations of places and people; there's life in every corner of them, a kind of vision that goes beyond mere seeing. What's more, unlike Jenison's climate- and light-controlled music room, Vermeer's setting would have been subject to the changing of the light streaming through the window, depending on the hour of the day, the week of the month, the month of the year. Vermeer would have had to paint through, and translate, all those variables.

And how do we know that Vermeer was actually painting the colors he saw in real life, as opposed to those he saw in his head? Maybe his model's hair was more or less golden; perhaps some unexplainable instinct led him to mute the red of the carpet instead of just copying it. It's all well and good to reproduce a seahorse design on your laser printer, the better to decorate your virginal with. But to really see the virginal, its essence and its being, takes more than a lens. It takes an eye. Whatever technology he might have used, Vermeer's paintings, unlike Jenison's re-creation, are filled with light and magic. And not the industrial kind.

 
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