Documentary Review: TIM’S VERMEER (2013)

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In this fascinating documentary, inventor Tim Jenison sets out to prove that the 17th century Dutch Master, deemed the greatest realist painter of all time, was secretly using an optical instrument to capture his photo-like images. It provides a uniquely original view of timeless masterpieces.

Demystifying Vermeer’s Realism

With extraordinary wit and charm, this exceptional art documentary follows several years in the life of computer softwear inventor Tim Jenison who took an intellectual odyssey, delving into the work of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master whose unparalleled photo-like realism on canvas has baffled art experts for centuries.

Jenison notes that Vermeer’s marvelous paintings have photo-like qualities. For example, objects situated within a specific depth of field have hard edges, while objects in the foreground have softer edges — as they do in photographs.

However, Vermeer painted before cameras existed. So, how did the artist see as a camera does, and create images so similar to those captured with a camera?

Jenison theorized that Vermeer had help — in the form of an optical instrument that enabled him to capture images with photographic exactitude.

Jenison set out to invent an instrument like one Vermeer might have had in his possession — although there’s no record of such a device having existed.

Finding The Right Solution

After failed attempts and much frustration, Jenison designed a small mirror device that reflects an object in such a way that a painter can duplicate the object’s color and shape on canvas. It’s sort of like paint by numbers — but different. With it, anyone can paint realistically.

Using his mirror device, Jenison copied a two dimensional black and white photograph of his grandfather. It was the first time he’d wielded a paint brush, but he created a remarkably accurate duplicate of the black and white photo.

Spurred by his success and ongoing obsession to unlock the secret of Vermeer’s realism, Jenison decided to copy a Vermeer, picking The Music Lesson — partly because it is so intricately detailed.

To see whether the device would work, Jenison built a life size replica of the room, furnishings and objects shown in the painting — every thing was reproduced in exact detail. Using family members as models, Jenison commenced to employ his optical device to guide his brush from palette to canvas, creating his forgery of the original painting.

The process was exacting and took a long time. Jenison got tired of the arduous task, but stuck with it. In the end, Tim’s Vermeer was a very good forgery — even according to experts.

Passion and Humor

Jenison’s mindset and approach to the mystery of Vermeer’s work is fascinating, and so is the film.

It’s also funny — thanks in large measure to Jenison’s engaging, always thoughtful commentary and his appealingly self-effacing humor.

Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) applies a deft director’s hand to shaping the story. And Patrick Sheffield’s editing is brilliant.

The film and Jenison’s claims about Vermeer’s use of optics are likely to cause considerable controversy in the art world, but David Hockney, architect Phillip Steadman and other experts have already embraced Jenison’s theory.

Tim’s Vermeer is an eye-opening must see!

Film Details:

Title: Tim’s Vermeer
Director: Teller (of Penn and Teller fame)
US Premier Date: October 3, 2013 (at New York Film Festival)
Running Time: 80 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Country: USA, Holland
Language: English
Production Company: Final Cut For Real
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Official Website

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