Movie – “Tim’s Vermeer”

If you are an artist, or one who appreciates art, you will likely find this movie interesting. It’s available in DVD and Blue Ray and can be easily located with a search. The movie is made by Penn Jillette (from the famed Penn and Teller).  One Caveat – Penn Jillette is first and foremost an Illusionist.   The movie is billed as a documentary, but Penn is an Illusionist.

The movie is about Tim Jenison, an inventor and engineer, and who has a keen understanding of videography and graphics. His knowledge of video sparked an intrigue regarding the paintings by Vermeer. It has long been thought that Vermeer (and possibly other artists during the renaissance) used a primitive camera called the camera obscura, or something similar, to project an image onto the canvas from which they could create a painting. Tim mentions in the movie – when seeing a Vermeer painting, he sees a “video signal” – referring to a familiar cast / or glow in the light that is usually only produced in video or photography – because human eyes cannot see it in nature. Knowing this, Tim’s intrigue heightens to a point of motivating him to recreate as authentically as possible a painting by Vermeer. No small feat for him – since he is not a painter.

The movie follows Tim’s efforts to create an optical device that could be used to create the Vermeer (the painting he chooses to copy is “The Music Lesson”), as well as his efforts to actually paint the piece. After some experimentation, he succeeds in developing an optical device that he uses to guide him to create a beautiful copy of a Vermeer painting. As he put it, the optical device turns him into a – not sure if this is an exact quote, but close – “human photocopy machine”. That he was able to paint the Vermeer copy using this device is compelling in and of itself as evidence Vermeer may have used something similar. But there is other evidence, discovered during painting that makes it even more compelling. Check out the movie for these details.

The movie is more about Tim, and Tim’s adventure into painting than it is about the artist Vermeer. It should not be surprising that Vermeer and likely other renaissance artists may have used optical devices. This was the renaissance after all, a time when engineering, architecture and art where almost indistinguishable.

There are a few questions the movie raises.
– He does not address why he chooses to use a concave mirror. This creates the “Vermeer Smile” in the painting (see the movie for detail), but that was supposed to be an accident. I’m wondering why he used a concave mirror instead of a straight one when he was developing the optical device.
– The movie briefly touches on attributing the paintings value as a work of art to Vermeer as it is his composition, but it would have been good to have more about this. Vermeer was a master at composition, and many of his works are based on a mathematical compositional method which uses the armature of the rectangle to divide the pictorial plane. Vermeer uses the divisions created by the armature to line up elements in the painting – thereby creating something that although mathematical – our brains interpret as more pleasing. The movie did not address this. For example – using the optical device that Tim made, how difficult is it to get all the elements to line up on the canvas? How much trial and error – moving things around so everything was aligned properly? And did Tim manage to get his composition as close to the mathematical armature as Vermeer did? We don’t know.
– We also don’t know how well Tim painted the picture. On screen it looks excellent. But there is no direct comparison, or discussion about how it differs from the original Vermeer. I know, here is where Tim and Penn would be shaking their heads. The movie is about how Vermeer may have made his paintings – and to that, I think it is successful but only in terms of the mechanical aspect. I think any variation in the copy from the original is fair game – since the movie addresses this as a “human photocopy machine”.

In other words – the movie leaves the questions of Vermeer’s talent as a painter and composer of pictures as it relates to, or in light of – his use of an optical device.  And isn’t it really all about the amazing quality of Vermeer’s paintings?  How important was the optical device in terms of Vermeer’s ability to create what he painted? (not paint what he painted).

If the movie sets out to show evidence as to how Vermeer may have made his paintings – it only addresses it on one dimension. It leaves out how the compositions were made and decided upon – and whether Tim Jenison was able to achieve in his copy the other worldly “glow” in the lights that an original Vermeer has. And it doesn’t take on how difficult it was to line up all the elements in the room so they would reflect through the optical device and onto the canvas aligned with the precision required by the armature of the rectangle. It would have been interesting to see that.

I’ve shown this movie to friends, loaned it out, and also watched it at the local art gallery which showed it one evening. It’s worth seeing. Perhaps Penn will put together a sequel which is more artistically technical! And maybe expand the concept to include other interesting tid bits from the renaissance.

So how about that? Masterpiece works of art created with the help of an optical device? How dare they! Or, who cares? I think if you are an experienced artist, and knows first hand what it takes to create a successful work or art, you lean to – “who cares”. But –if you are a non-artist, not for the reason you may first think!

The optical device is an aid in copying – and copying only. The work of art is created in the choice of subject matter and how that is supported in the composition and all the choices made in terms of the abstract light and dark relationships, harmony in color, and other variables. Which is achieved through a combination of instinct, training, and experience.

Having said that, I tend to be more of a “purist” (huh?) for my own work. I have known for a long time the thinking that Vermeer and other artists of his time likely used optical devices when painting, and I know artists today who use projectors. That’s all fine.
Many years ago, I made a conscience decision that I would not go that route. I wanted my drawing and drafting skills to increase and that could only happen if I practiced as much as possible. Using an optical device would preclude that. So I always force myself to do the drawing from scratch with no projectors or similar aids. And I think over the years this has paid off. I can now do a painting and confidently draw it out in paint with the brush. I can move things around, change shapes, make alterations to better the composition, etc, without worry about losing the drawing.  (Notwithstanding complex or unfamiliar subject’s that I would want to study closely in terms of drawing and structure).  In this way I feel more free to paint, and create in a way that would not be possible if I was tied to a projector or other device.

Some of the most incredible masterpieces ever made were by artists who had to conjure up an image that is impossible to have been painted by using a projector or optical device such as in the movie “Tim’s Vermeer”.

Rembrandts “Storm on The Sea of Galilee
Rembrandt’s only seascape, and sadly one of the 13 works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Still missing.

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640px-Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee

“The Horse Fair” by Rosa Bonheur
Painted in 1852. A brief history of how she painted this, quote from the Metropolitan Museum of Art :   “This, Bonheur’s best-known painting, shows the horse market held in Paris on the tree-lined Boulevard de l’Hôpital, near the asylum of Salpêtrière, which is visible in the left background. For a year and a half Bonheur sketched there twice a week, dressing as a man to discourage attention. Bonheur was well established as an animal painter when the painting debuted at the Paris Salon of 1853, where it received wide praise. In arriving at the final scheme, the artist drew inspiration from George Stubbs, Théodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, and ancient Greek sculpture: she referred to The Horse Fair as her own “Parthenon frieze.”

This small image doesn’t do it justice, the original size is 99 1/4″ X 199 1/2″.  Must see if you ever get to the Met.

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Horse Fair

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