Tim's Vermeer

Written by Richard Murison

Not long ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix from Sony Classics called Tim’s Vermeer.  It was a profoundly interesting program, one I felt was worth writing about.  I urge you to seek it out.  You won’t regret it.

Johannes (Jan) Vermeer was one of the Dutch Masters who painted in the latter part of the 17th Century.  His paintings, typical in general of the Dutch Golden Age, possess a quality we refer to as ‘photo-realism’.  They exhibit an accuracy of perspective, and of illumination, that we today take for granted in photographs, but which was quite unknown in Vermeer’s time.

Tim Jenison is an American entrepreneur who built a successful career in software for the TV and video industries.  Although he is a graphic artist, he is not trained in any way as a painter.  Jenison, like many people before him, was deeply intrigued by how the Dutch Masters – and Vermeer in particular – were able to make the leap in perception which they did.

As an expert in the field of video, he came to appreciate that Vermeer’s paintings differed from many other photo-realistic works in a key aspect.  The way he saw it, they looked more to him like video stills than photographs.  To his way of thinking, this would only come about if they were ‘copied’ from life.  Typical paintings, by contrast, are ‘created’ in the sense that you can modify the result if it isn’t exactly what you have in mind, even to the extent that it is no longer a strictly accurate replication of the original scene.  Many experts in the field have postulated that the Dutch School arose due to the concurrent development of the camera obscura.  This would throw an image of a real-life scene onto a screen or wall in a darkened room, and the artist could paint from that.  Vermeer’s “video-still” brand of photo-realism could arise if, for example, he painted by ‘copying’ what he saw on a camera obscura image.

Books have been published on this topic (the so-called Hockney-Falco thesis, named for the British artist David Hockney and the American physicist Charles Falco), which made an impression on Jenison.  The interesting thing is that none of Vermeer’s works show any evidence of the sort of procedures an artist would presumably have had to follow if that were the case.  A camera obscura (latin for “Dark Room”) is a low-light environment, and not one at all conducive to painting a masterpiece.  Therefore, if an artist were to use one as the tool to throw an image directly onto a canvas that he would then paint over, it is likely that he would record the basic framework of the image in the camera obscura, and finish it off at his leisure in his studio.  However, X-ray analysis of Vermeer’s works show no evidence of any such structures beneath the final layers of paint.  His works appear to have been deposited in their final form directly upon the canvas, and with extraordinary precision in some critical aspects.

Intrigued by these findings, Jenison set about his own experiments, to see what would happen in practice if you tried to paint Vermeer-style art from camera obscura images, and from there to imagine how Vermeer might have responded to these challenges.  One of the obvious problems is that the image in a camera obscura is upside-down and back-to-front.  Although the latter is not too much of a hindrance, the human brain – and therefore the artist’s eye – has a lot more trouble interpreting an inverted image.  Jenison realized that using a mirror would be the simplest way to correct for that problem and set about experimenting with one.

He immediately found an intriguing solution.  He placed a small canvas flat on a table which he positioned directly below a photograph.  He then placed a small mirror directly above the canvas, equidistant between the canvas and the photograph.  Peering at the canvas from above, a viewer would see the canvas, except for the area where the mirror impinged, where instead he would see a reflection of a small portion of the photograph.  Both photograph and canvas would be in focus.  You could then use the setup as a tool to draw a replica of the photograph, a bit like dividing a picture into a grid of squares like they taught you in high school.

As a graphics designer, Jenison saw this configuration as a 17th century version of an editing window in which you could place the original and the copy side-by-side for comparison purposes.  In particular, it would enable very precise colour matching, which is otherwise rather more challenging than you might imagine, since the human eye/brain combination has very poor absolute colour memory.  Jenison then used this theory to attempt for himself to copy a simple B&W portrait photo using oils.  As a non-painter, this would be his first ever attempt at an oil painting.  You really need to see the film itself to appreciate what an incredible job he was able to do.

Essentially, what his technique does is to nibble away at the whole image, by adjusting his viewpoint so that, bit by bit, the entire image passes by the interface between the mirror and the canvas, allowing him to compare and replicate the exact tint of the applied paint at each point.

Armed with a primitive (but authentic) camera obscura device, his mirror, and his B&W portrait in oil, Jenison visited David Hockney in London, plus a couple of other authorities, to see if there was any interest in the notion that this might have been the technique that Vermeer himself had used.  The reception he received was quite encouraging.  Also, while in London, he was granted special dispensation to visit Buckingham Palace and spend a half hour looking at his personal favourite Vermeer painting, “The Music Lesson”.

He came away convinced of what the next step should be.  He would attempt to use the self same techniques to try and replicate Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson”.  Actually, he would not so much try to replicate the painting, rather he would attempt to replicate what he proposed to have been the entire creative process employed by Vermeer, to the greatest possible degree of authenticity.  Given that Jenison was not in any way a painter – not even a talented amateur – and Vermeer is a revered master, this would be a major challenge.

Jenison was quite thorough in his approach.  Like Vermeer, he chose to make his own paints by grinding his own pigments and mixing them with oils.  He made his own furniture when he could not buy authentic originals.  He cast and ground his own lenses to use in the camera obscura.  He recreated as exactly as possible the room in which the original painting was set, the clothes worn by the subjects, the decoration and the furnishings – which included a Viola da Gamba, on which he gave a rustic and rather baroque rendition of the iconic riff from “Smoke On The Water”.

I won’t elaborate on the outcome, save to say that it all comes to a fitting and entirely satisfactory conclusion.  Along the way, a couple of quite extraordinary things emerge.  One of the first things Jenison observes when he begins his marathon paint job is the appearance of chromatic aberration, caused by the fact that he has obliged himself to use authentic glass and lens designs in his camera obscura.  If he is going to be true to his aim of objective authenticity, he must include the faint blue blurs which are visible at certain high contrast edges.  In fact, given his method, it would have been quite challenging to attempt to correct for them.  But, looking at high-magnification images of the original Vermeer, he is astonished to find that it, too, has rendered the same blue blur, in the same places.  There is no reason to believe that Vermeer understood chromatic aberration.

More dramatically, though, part way through the painting, Jenison discovers that his lens also shows some mild pincushioning, a fact that only becomes evident due to the unerring optical accuracy of his method.  Again, and quite astonishingly, the original Vermeer is shown to exhibit the very same pincushion distortion, in such a way as to suggest that not only did he follow Jenison’s method, but also the precise (and highly practical) techniques through which Jenison implemented it.  Unfortunately, the narration did not address the question of whether or not this pincushioning had ever been detected by experts prior to Jenison’s work.  That would have been interesting to know, but on reflection I conclude that it really can’t have been.

I found the whole thing to be wonderfully entertaining and informative.  Since the program was produced by Penn and Teller – with Penn Jillette doubling as presenter and narrator, and Teller directing – one can comfortably eliminate the notion that the wool is being pulled over our eyes in the service of a good yarn.  Some limited follow-up diligence on my part shows that while Jenison’s theory does indeed receive a great deal of credence – seriously unusual in itself for the work of a rank amateur and outsider in the rarefied world of fine art – there is little to support it in terms of the historical record.  Vermeer is not known to have had any particular interest in optics, and his personal effects after his death were not noted to have included a camera obscura, lenses, or anything similar.

It is interesting, by way of a coda, to contemplate some of the negative criticism that came the way of Jenison’s efforts, most notably by Jonathan Jones, Art Critic of the UK newspaper The Guardian.  More than anything else, Jones’ panties are apparently all in a bunch over the notion that Jenison is somehow seeking to prick Vermeer’s reputation as an Old Master.  But read between Jones’ lines and what you realize is that Jones is not so much bothered by what Jenison has to say about Vermeer as much as what it perhaps has to say about his own credentials as an art critic.  Because, very clearly, Jenison’s motives and objectives are not as Jones seeks to characterize them.

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