Tim’s Vermeer, 2014


The basic premise of Tim’s Vermeer is that Vermeer used a lens and a concave mirror to project an image, then painted the canvas with the help of another mirror above the canvas. Using a reconstructed “set” of Vermeer’s Music Lesson, Tim Jenison demonstrates that images can be transferred to canvas this way. True, lenses and mirrors of high quality were uncommon ca. 1660, but the city where Leeuwenhoek (“Father of Microbiology”) worked would be the place to find them ... and Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer’s will, so the two were certainly acquainted. Even a low-quality lens might be a very useful aid, just as early photos (often blurred and low contrast) were a vast improvement over a complete absence of same.

On the other hand, the catalogue of the comprehensive Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington (1995) notes, re The Music Lesson, that “A pinpoint with which Vermeer marked the vanishing point of the composition is visible in the paint layer.” If Vermeer put paint on canvas solely by using a mechanical apparatus, there would be no reason to set a mark for the vanishing point.

A few points Tim makes just don’t hold water. The one that sticks in my mind is the argument that no one could perceive the gradations of color across a plaster wall, from intense light near the window through to the shadows at the far wall, without mechanical assistance such as Tim’s apparatus or a light meter. That’s just wrong. If I can see the gradation looking at the painting, why couldn’t Vermeer see it looking at the wall? Tim (as he often admitted) wasn’t trained as a painter. Just as a musician can train himself to hear when one voice in a chorus of 50 is fractionally off, an artist can train himself routinely to observe shades of light and color that most of us don’t focus on.

But here’s the main point: Even if Vermeer used an apparatus such as Tim suggests, it doesn’t make Vermeer less of an artist. Such an apparatus makes it easier to transfer colors and shapes to a canvas, but it doesn’t tell the artist what subject or theme to choose. What people or items should he incorporate? How should he arrange them? What emphasis should he to give each item? What time of day should he show? How much effort should he put into the details of an eye or a rug or a viola da gamba? Should he realistically portray all the shadows, or delete some for emphasis? All this needs to be worked out before an artist pulls out paints, palette, and any apparatus he uses.

Tim clearly admires Vermeer’s work – why spend years trying to understand the technique behind it otherwise? But it’s only at the very end of the documentary that he alludes, briefly, to the fact that Vermeer is the one who created the composition. The focus of the documentary is on the mechanical process, not the creative process that came before it.

I’d say Tim’s apparatus is the equivalent of using music software to transcribe a song you’ve just worked out on an electronic keyboard, or using the pointing technique to take a sculpture from a reduced-size to full scale model.

Bottom line: I recommend Tim’s Vermeer. The big attractions are seeing details of Vermeer up close and glowing, and seeing Tim in full problem-solving mode, working out details, learning old processes such as grinding lenses and mixing paint, and so on. It’s a well-told story, nicely paced, with enough detail for novices but not so many that your eyes will roll up in your head.

A version of this essay was posted to the Harry Binswanger List in March 2014.