The 20th century trick behind this painting

Art/science doc Tim’s Vermeer reveals the bit of futuristic technology used to create this famous 17th century work.

“The Music Lesson” 

NewTek founder and inventor Tim Jenison is something of a modern day Leonardo Da Vinci. He wears many hats simultaneously, embracing experiments, tinkering away to find solutions or understanding of various tasks. When Jenison’s long time friend Penn Jillette, of Las Vegas comedy/magic duo Penn & Teller, caught wind of his latest obsession and his next proposed experiment, they decided to document the process on film.

tim posterJenison is obsessed with the work of the famous Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”), not simply because his paintings are beautiful, but due to his belief that Vermeer must have used some sort of technical process in order to create his masterpieces. Jenison’s background in video engineering allows him to recognize the light and details in Vermeer’s paintings as something that could only be seen through a lens, as opposed to the naked eye. He’s not the only one who holds this belief either — two other scholars have written books about their own theories, namely Philip Steadman in Vermeer’s Camera and David Hockney in Secret Knowledge.

Tim’s Vermeer documents Jenison’s conversations with Vermeer scholars, Steadman and Hockney among them, while he uncovers a technique that the artist could have used, which allows the most amateur painter to duplicate images through this mirror/lens approach.

tim2The film really unrolls as some kind of glorified episode of How It’s Made, mixed with the spirit and curiosity of Mythbusters. When Jenison decides to use his technique and test out his theory in order to paint his own Vermeer, you get to follow the entire process, including false starts, mishaps and indeed a bit of mayhem.

Tim’s Vermeer seamlessly mixes art and science, demonstrating that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. And it happily upsets the reverence with which we tend to treat our prized historical objects, offering up new information and revealing that Vermeer was way ahead of his contemporaries. ■

Tim’s Vermeer opens today

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