Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

Tim Jenison's painting on the left; Vermeer's original painting on the right*

Tim's Vermeer is the most fascinating documentary I've seen this year. It's about a man named Tim Jenison and his obsession with discovering how Johannes Vermeer was able to paint the way he did. (Its PG-13 rating is solely for language - 3 words, one of which is in print and two of which are spoken in a scene where the wind blows down Jenison's window.)

Vermeer lived in the 1600s in the Dutch Republic. When Vermeer died, he left his family in debt, and there are only 34 paintings attributed to him (Van Gogh produced about 900); Vermeer probably painted very slowly. When you look at Vermeer's paintings, you'll notice they're mostly interiors. You'll also notice that some objects are used in multiple paintings (like the viola da gamba and the blue chair in The Music Lesson above).

Jenison is a successful inventor, and his success has afforded him the time and money to pursue his interests. A few years ago, he became curious about Vermeer's paintings. Jenison (whose company produces video tools and visual imaging software) thought Vermeer's paintings looked like video images. He had to figure out how Vermeer had done it. He read books about Vermeer. He traveled to the Netherlands so he could visit Vermeer's house. He learned to read Dutch.

Jenison believed that Vermeer must have used a camera obscura and an angled mirror. To read about this, click here.

To test his hypothesis, Jenison built a room that looked exactly like the one in The Music Lesson. He ground his own lens for his camera obscura, ordered a viola da gamba, and bought a Persian carpet for $8,000 in an auction. He had his daughter, on her month-long vacation home from college, pose in a 17th century costume with her head in a head clamp. He made his own paint.

Then he started painting. It took Jenison 130 days to paint his Vermeer, and he estimates Vermeer took just as long. Remember, only 34 paintings are attributed to Vermeer, and his career was over 20 years.
 
As Jenison painted, he noticed that he was painting the harpsicord with a curve - a mistake - but a mistake that Vermeer himself had made in the original. Vermeer would not have done this had he not viewed the room through a lens (a lens is curved and curved the harpsicord's straight lines).

Additionally, the human eye can't distinguish shades of white when they aren't right next to each other. This is demonstrated in the film. So how did Vermeer paint the white walls of his studio? You'll have to watch the documentary because it can only be explained visually.

Jenison's whole project took about five years, and his finished painting now hangs above the fireplace in his bedroom.

*This image is from genisyscorp.com.

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