Tim’s Vermeer is an amazing project and now a film in which Tim Jennison, a computer engineer attempts to replicate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, despite having no formal training as a painter. Tim, the owner of NewTek, a post-production video tool and visual imaging software company, described his magnicent obsession at the San Antonio Museum of Art to an appreciative hometown audience.
The Camera Obscura is a device which projects an image of its surroundings onto a screen. Artists and astronomers have been using projectors in many forms for centuries, with early mentions from China in the 4th Century, in 14th Century Islam and in Europe, where the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the phrase camera obscura. Leonardo da Vinci was an enthusiast:
“Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily, none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the figures, here the colors, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!”
Speculation that Vermeer used a mechanical aid have been entertained for centuries, but no one could prove it. Tim Jennison had a stark realization, while looking closely at The Music Lesson, that drove him to recreate the studio and the device that would allow him to replicate the painting. He began his talk admitting that it was an exercise in obsession, and he did go to almost unbelievable lengths to use exactly the same technology that Vermeer would have used in the 17th Century. This included grinding the lens for the mirror, making the paint from minerals of the era and building the furniture, including the harpsichord. Most fortuitously, they found a rare, 15th Century Persian rug that exactly matched the rug in the painting. I would highly recommend renting the movie to see how one man’s passion became a labor of love and an amazing journey for all the people involved in the project including his friends, magicians Penn and Teller. David Hockney, the painter and physicist Charles Falco wrote about Renaissance artists’ use of optics in their controversial book Secret Knowledge in 2001, prompting outrage and near hysterical resistance on the part of art historians and artists alike.
So, when Tim realized that the human eye was incapable of perceiving the many gradations of white to grey that he saw in the wall of Vermeer’s painting, he decided to see if the camera obscura would make the difference. What he found, was that once he set up his device he could paint from the projection until the color on the canvas blended with the image, whether or not it looked “right” to his eye. It worked like magic, which is kind of expected when you’re working with magicians. It’s a great story, including the clincher which made it almost certain that Vermeer used a lens, but you’ll have to rent the movie to find out. Shown below is Tim’s painting of The Music Lesson.
The art community has become less defensive on behalf of its revered masters and indeed, ingenuity and painstaking craft are tools of the trade, however transcendent the final expression. As David Hockney has said on many occasions, the use of a device does not diminish Vermeer’s genius in any way. The soul of the artist shines through.