The documentary Tim’s Vermeer is the story of Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s obsessive quest to recreate a Vermeer. Vermeer, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, is often mentioned as one of the greatest of all artists, with his paintings of domestic life glowing with an inner light. They are also startlingly realistic—some would say photorealistic.
Jenison believes that
Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. The image is projected upside down, and Jenison believes that Vermeer used a mirror to correct this.
Tim’s Vermeer is as much the story of Tim, as it is of Vermeer. His nature is obsessive, and the viewer is repeatedly astonished to see the lengths Tim will go to accurately reproduce a Vermeer called “The Music Lesson.” As well as using a camera obscura, he recreates the setting, including making a virginal, the keyboard instrument shown in the painting. He makes his own lens to seventeenth-century specifications, and grinds his own pigments for paint.
He also traveled to Delft, Holland, where Vermeer painted, and to Yorkshire to meet artist (and Vermeer fan) David Hockney, and to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen’s Vermeer. Hockney had written his own book on the use of optical devices by artists, called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.
Then we watch Jenison, who labors for hour after hour, reproducing each brushstroke as he re-creates the Vermeer. He completed the painting in six months, and brought it to David Hockney to see. Is Tim’s Vermeer as good as Vermeer’s Vermeer? It’s really not clear that Jenison’s painting is that good—we don’t get a close enough look. And there is a telling moment when Jenison unveils the painting before Hockney, who remains silent, and then comments on the realistic carpet.
My guess is that Vermeer did use such a device, or something similar, but that his artist’s eye came into play, as well, and this explains Hockney’s silence—perhaps Jenison’s painting has everything but that mysterious something that is the soul of the artist.
You might want to watch the movie Girl with Pearl Earring after seeing this. You get to see some of the process by which Vermeer painted, including the grinding of his paints, though there is no sign of a camera obscura.