It matters little whether you have an interest in art or not. Tim’s Vermeer, the new documentary from the performer Teller – he’s the non-verbal half of the comedy magic duo Penn & Teller – is simply fascinating.
All you need to know going in are the names of two people; Johannes Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter, and present-day Texas inventor and all-round obsessive Vermeer geek, Tim Jenison. “When lying in bed at night,” states Tim, “All I can think of is this goal of painting a Vermeer.”
The 2004 film Girl with a Pearl Earring with Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the servant who became the subject of Vermeer’s celebrated painting, gave us a glimpse of the artist and his work, but it didn’t show the theory behind his technique.
The verbal half of Penn & Teller, Penn Jillette, is present throughout his partner’s new film, commenting on both the artist and the inventor and accompanying the inventor on his journey around the world in search of the answer to a simple question; how did Vermeer get the light in his paintings to look like it did?
“It’s more than paint on canvas,” Penn explains, “It’s more like a glow on a movie screen.” And it’s true. If you look closely at a Vermeer you’ll notice how most of his paintings appear to be set in either one of two rooms where the glow of the light through the window shining down on the subjects of the work, usually women, appeared natural, like the light of the sun as it might be captured in a photograph, not an oil. But how did Vermeer do it? How did he paint the way a camera sees?
When x-rayed, there are no artist renderings or pencil sketches underneath the completed painting used as a guide for the artist to follow. Vermeer simply painted. As Penn further explains, when seen across the room in a gallery, a Vermeer painting pops out at you like a color slide. But inventor Tim has a theory and it’s this: Vermeer got the colors correct by mechanical means. The Texas inventor spends the rest of the documentary trying to prove his theory, and it’s spellbinding.
By using mirrors angled in such a way where every brush stroke used is guided by what the artist sees and compares in the reflection, over a period of one hundred and thirty days, Tim Jenison actually achieves what he sets out to do; he successfully recreates a Vermeer. Whether Vermeer ever used the same techniques as shown in the documentary continues to be a point of dispute. Vermeer is known to have had no formal training as an artist but there is also no record of him knowing anything regarding optics and mirrors, so Tim’s theory of a mechanical usage remains a theory, but there’s no doubting the results. “Tim is not an artist,” Penn continues, “He’s a technologist.” And if Tim has a talent for anything, it’s figuring out how things work.
The painting Tim recreates is Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. The end result is not a forgery and neither is it intended to be a copy. It’s a genuine Tim Jenison original painted under the same conditions Vermeer would have painted his version of The Music Lesson back in his home in Delft, Holland between 1662 and 1665. To explain further and reveal all is to spoil the fun. You should see it for yourself.
Tim’s Vermeer is a short film. It runs for a scant eighty minutes, but feels even shorter for the simple fact that from almost from the get-go you’re hooked and time flies. Tim Jenison’s enthusiasm is both infectious and inspiring, and Teller’s exciting documentary can’t help but literally enthrall every step of the way. As for the end result, when Tim, a non-artist, finally reveals his completed work, any one of us would be happy to have it framed and hanging on a wall in our living room where you could impress friends and neighbors by lying and telling them that, yes, it’s a Vermeer. They’d never know the difference.
PAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 80 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)