I am Vermeer
Inventor’s very detailed attempt at recreating the Dutch master’s mysterious painting style
The Tim in Tim’s Vermeer is Tim Jenison, a San Antonio-based inventor/technician with a wide range of interests and an extraordinary devotion to difficult tasks involving elaborate calculations and technical precision.
Vermeer, of course, is the great 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. And the film, produced by the magician/entertainer team of Penn & Teller, connects Tim with Vermeer by way of Jenison’s determination to recreate, and put into actual practice, the technical means by which Vermeer produced the near-photographic quality of his masterpieces.
With that in mind, this brief (80 minute), amiable film briskly documents the lengthy, painstaking process by which Jenison sets out to paint a replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” using only the means and materials that would have been available to Vermeer in 17th century Holland.
And since there is no historical record of exactly how the great painter achieved the distinctive qualities and effects of his famously luminous works, Tim’s Vermeer is both an account of an extraordinarily intricate experiment and a kind of techno-artistic mystery tale.
Jenison’s attention to every detail is downright heroic. He makes his own paint, builds an exact replica of Vermeer’s studio as it appears in “The Music Lesson,” and constructs the camera obscura and an accompanying system of lenses and mirrors that he and others believe Vermeer must have used. Even the light sources, subtle shadows, and miniscule ornamentations of the original must be replicated.
Jenison has sufficient time and wealth that he can also make research trips to Vermeer’s hometown of Delft and to London and Buckingham Palace for a 30-minute private viewing of the original painting. He and the film also have the benefit of on-screen consultations with artist David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman, both of whom have published books examining the possible uses of the camera obscura, etc., in paintings preceding the advent of photography in the 19th century.
Even with its relatively brief running time, Tim’s Vermeer lags a bit at times. Fortunately, nearly everything about Jenison is interesting and the film’s detailed account of his project works especially well as the portrait of a special kind of genius in which mechanical savvy, artistic inspiration and freewheeling combinations of imagination and curiosity play very lively roles.
As directed by Teller (with on-screen commentary from Penn Jillette), the film as a whole is impressive for what it shows and a little disappointing in its casual and rather glib approach to the issues it raises. Jenison’s replica looks good, but the implications, artistic and otherwise, of that project deserve a more careful and thorough examination.