The behind-the-camera feature debut of Penn & Teller, Tim’s Vermeer begins with a mystery: How is it that 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s uncannily precise paintings contain no sketches beneath their surfaces? There’s little record of the artist’s painting method, and there are still perplexing qualities in his celebrated use of light. Penn friend Tim Jenison, a technologist with a computer-graphics background, has the notion that Vermeer acted as a proto-photographer, employing the combination of a mirror and a camera obscura in such a way as to make replication foolproof. By framing a subject in the dental-tool-size mirror, anyone capable of holding a brush can simply mix colors until the edge of the reflecting device disappears. Thus, with time and effort, even someone who’s never painted before can paint a Vermeer. The film amasses substantial evidence that Vermeer might have used such a tool. His paintings show gradations of color the retina alone cannot perceive. Various imperfections in his work suggest the faulty optics of a lens.
With Penn providing talking-head comic relief, Jenison sets out to create a version of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson using only materials the artist could have possessed. He builds furniture, arranging it in a warehouse to replicate the windowed Delft room where Vermeer painted his most famous pictures. He fashions 17th-century lenses and learns how to mix oil paint. Then he goes to work. The results fall somewhere between science and art, raising the question of whether Vermeer’s genius was more technological than creative. The debate over the use of aids in painting is nothing new, especially in modern art. But as Philip Steadman, author of Vermeer’s Camera, points out, there’s a certain school of critics who might regard the use of optics as a cheat—a deflation of Vermeer’s brilliance rather than an affirmation of it. British painter David Hockney, whose book Secret Knowledge explores the use of technology in the Old Masters’ work, turns up to offer an admiring artist’s point of view.
This is all fascinating for art-history buffs, and while a documentary is the ideal vehicle for illustrating Jenison’s process, Tim’s Vermeer plays more like an extended PBS special than it does a movie. Attempts to liven up Jenison’s repetitive labors—not surprisingly, he gets sick of the process, and at one point nearly suffers carbon-monoxide poisoning after bringing a patio heater indoors—come across as overly chummy. Still, it’s hard not to be bowled over by the finished product. Tim’s Vermeer will inspire more people to take up painting than filmmaking.