- Tim’s Vermeer written and dir. by Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller
Written and directed by Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller
Produced by High Delft Pictures
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Flash back to Paris in the mid-1850s. In the crowded corridors of the Louvre, there are dozens of young student painters with easels propped up before the works of the Masters. They are copying the paintings down to the smallest detail, painstakingly duplicating the composition and color down to every nuance of brush stroke. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, these students will not only successfully emulate the painterly achievement of the great artists, but in the process will be well on the road to an empathy and creativity all their own.
Now back in the present, meet the subject of Penn and Teller’s documentary film, Tim’s Vermeer. Tim Jenison is a wealthy Texas inventor, graphics designer, and entrepreneur of the revolutionary New Tek company. He’s not standing in the central nave of the Louvre but in the bleak confines of a San Antonio warehouse. Before him is “The Artist’s Studio,” a painting by the 17th century Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Like his 19th-century forebears, Tim is also attempting to make a copy. Unlike his brethren, however, he admits he is not a painter and lacks knowledge and experience of brush and pigment. “At night when I’m in bed,” he confesses, “all I can think about is this goal of painting a Vermeer. It will be remarkable if I can do it!”
Tim is a tinkerer and a problem solver. His fascination with Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece owes little to the surpassing sublimity of Vermeer’s vision of a woman, her back to us, seated at the virginal (harpsichord), attended by a gentleman positioned at her right hand. He is more drawn (as it were) to its seemingly photographic detail and subtlety of light—qualities, [End Page 93] he surmises, that can only have been achieved by somehow transferring to canvas the images captured by a camera. Now, we know little of the life and methods of the notoriously reclusive 17th century Dutch painter, who left behind no written records or student followers, but we can be sure he had no camera, analogic or digital. The daguerreotype technology is still two centuries away. But another camera was probably available to him and his contemporaries, a camera obscura (a device visualized in the motion picture Girl with a Pearl Earring). Tim is aware of recent speculations by the historian Philip Steadman and painter David Hockney to the effect that Vermeer did indeed, like his contemporaries, utilize optical devices, like lenses and mirrors in transferring images to canvas. Perhaps, Jenison wonders, Vermeer thought of himself and his technological apparatus as a kind of painterly machine... not unlike Tim himself.
Armed with wealth, mechanical ingenuity, incredible patience, and a lot of time on his hands, Tim Jenison embarks on a five-year project to prove that God-given artistic talent is not necessary to achieve what Vermeer did. Just deploy the same combination of lenses, mirrors and other 17th-century tools and you can make your own Vermeer—note the emphasis on building rather than painting—in a kind of super “paint-by-number” process that his friends, master magicians Penn and Teller, have documented in their film. Note that I emphasize the word “make.” When Tim proudly shows off the finished product now hanging on the wall of his bedroom, he radiates the pride of an engineer not a painter. We are understandably quick to note that what is on display, no matter how accurately rendered, is not a Vermeer. Or is it? We know the original is hanging in Buckingham Palace, safe from prying eyes; yet darned if it doesn’t appears to be the real thing, down to the smallest detail. Even the closest examination reveals the only differences are that the pigments are freshly applied, the surface is free of the cracks of age, and the signature is not Vermeer’s.