Second Image
Tim Jenson discovers a mistake in Vermeer’s original painting of ‘The Music Lesson’

This is an extremely interesting, but, somehow , slightly disappointing documentary about Tim Jenison’s fascination with Vermeer and his attempt to create a painting like Vermeer’s. The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and is now screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

Tim Jenison the American scientist ,inventor and entrepreneur also has a passion for Vermeer and here is assisted by Penn Jillette, who produced the movie, and Teller, who directed it. In the 1980s, Jenison founded NewTek, a hardware and software company which had an early success with the creation of ‘Video Toaster ‘ a desktop video-production tool. Since then Jenison has done assorted exciting things, and now decides to document a long odyssey to discover whether the film’s other, better-known, subject, the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), used any kind of optical objects/apparatus when he created his extraordinary ,luminous paintings. Vermeer’s dazzling style, ‘painting with light’, concentrated on ordinary every day events , the incredibly acute colour and detail with the interplay of light and shadow creating what could be defined as an almost proto photo-realism.

Jenison’s inquiry into Vermeer’s optic al and painting technique was partially inspired by artist David Hockney and author Philip Steadman, both of whom appear in the film. Steadman wrote “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces,” in which he argues, as others have before him, that Vermeer used a camera obscura to create his paintings. A camera obscura — a precursor to the photographic camera — is an optical device used to project images. As Steadman declares, Vermeer used “the camera to study optical images and effects; as an instrument with which to set up and adjust his compositional arrangements of sitters and furniture; and as a means to obtain traced outlines for complete pictures, at their final sizes.”

Intrigued by Steadman’s ideas and Hockney’s book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters,” a more famous and controversial contribution to the debate over the use of optical devices in painting, Jenison set out to discover how Vermeer painted. He immersed himself in all things Vermeer and because he appears to have plenty of time off in lieu and money to burn , he was able to travel internationally, to study and create a mirrored tool that was possibly something the painter could have used. By using this mirror gizmo, at a particular angle, Jenison found he could paint a reflected image in great detail, capturing the original’s shapes and colours. He then completely recreated the room and figures in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” to see if he could make his own version.

Jenison flew around the world – in particular to the Delft Vermeer museum where he intensely scrutinized and analyzed some of the paintings and also to the UK where he met up with Hockney and Steadman .He learnt to speak and read reasonable Dutch .He taught himself how to make the lenses he needed, how to grind and produce the oil paints,  how to do fiddly woodwork and to recreate and repair the chairs etc- an incredible array of skills.

Jenison’s recreation of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, using natural lighting, techniques and materials that Vermeer used is astonishing .We see the practice works Jenison learns from ( a jug , a portrait of his grandfather from a black and white photo). For the major work itself, days and days are spent by Jenison on the modelling of the textured cloth surface of the rug. for example, the dots nearly driving him to distraction . Teller as director niftily uses time-lapse photography to show the extended growth of Jenison’s work, while Jillette discovers the hidden backstories of both artist and imitator.

To paraphrase, somewhat, one of my colleagues.- ‘There is no doubt that Jenison’s dedication to his huge project is admirable, but his end product is rather disappointing’, and proves nothing really either way about Vermeer’s painting techniques. It can be summarized in the faces of David Hockney and Philip Steadman when the painting is revealed to them, and they stare unconvinced at Jenison’s recreation.