What does it take to paint like a master?
Johannes Vermeer is considered a master. Although not particularly famous during his short life (1632-1675), the Dutch artist later received much acclaim for his amazingly realistic portraits (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and images of domestic life (The Lacemaker, The Milkmaid), that feature the dramatic use of light.
Then, in the late 1900s, a few critics began to question the true genius of the Delft painter and some of his contemporaries. Theories started circulating in the art world that perhaps some of the greatest talents in history may have been aided by camera obscura, a technique used before the invention of photography that allowed an image to be projected onto the wall of a dark room by passing light through a small hole in one of the walls. Because Vermeer’s work contains visual elements that are not natural to the naked eye, but instead look like the world when seen through a camera lens, he became the focus of publications like Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, and David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.
While these speculations where received like accusations by art history experts, few people outside of this academic circle took much notice. But there was one man who did: Tim Jenison.
Founder of NewTek and a pioneer in the creation of computer hardware/software for video production, Tim had spent many years creating digital images. He too was struck by how Vermeer captured light and how his paintings contained distortions common in photographs, such as foreground objects being larger and slightly more out of focus then the main subject further back in the picture. And that got Tim wondering if Vermeer had indeed used technical tools to achieve his realistic representations. If that was the case, could someone like himself (who was a geek and an inventor, not an artist) tinker around with the sorts of tools available during the 1600s and come up with a result anywhere similar to the handiwork of the esteemed Vermeer?
And thus a documentary was born. With the help of magicians/illusionists and television/film producers (as well as personal friends) Penn & Teller, Tim began a film exposé about his experiment to see if smoke and mirrors (well, probably not smoke, but certainly mirrors) were part of the mystery of the Great Vermeer.
With his curious and innovative mind locked on the project, Tim set off to see if he could produce anything close to Vermeer’s masterpiece, The Music Lesson. Traveling from his home in Texas to Delft (Vermeer’s studio) and to England (where the original painting hangs in the Queen’s collection), Tim researched every aspect of the artist and his work. He talked to experts, including Philip Steadman and David Hockney. And he built a set that mimicked the models, clothing and furniture depicted in the picture, recreated lenses using information about telescopes used in Vermeer’s time, and mixed his own paints from pigments. It was an elaborate process—one that could only be undertaken by someone, like this entrepreneur, who had enough time and disposable income to obsess over such an unusual hobby.
With the exception of a few profanities that slip out along the way, artists, tech geeks, believers and skeptics alike are sure to find Tim’s discoveries truly fascinating. Eventually (and that is about eight years later), Tim has a few things to show for all his effort—not the least of which is a pretty good copy of The Music Lesson. Yet if anyone should think his approach proves Vermeer took shortcuts, Tim Jenison would be the first to remind you that this tedious process may not take as much talent as the art world initially believed, but it certainly takes more patience than anyone could possibly imagine!
Keeping that in mind, Vermeer can rest easily in his grave knowing, even if his secrets have been revealed, there are few people who are going to be willing to try to do what he did. And that should keep his legacy firmly in the class of “Master” for a long time to come.