Johannes Vermeer was 21 years of age when he was accepted into his local Dutch painters’ guild in1653. With no record of any extensive apprenticeship, he manages to produce a number of paintings filled with light, peopled by realistic characters and furnished by realistic objects. In fact, the perspective, the lighting, the proportions and marvelous symmetry of his scenes, were so amazingly… realistic — they looked like precursors of the contemporary photo-realistic art.
For years art historians marveled at Vermeer. Some — ever so cautiously — wondered if, perhaps, the artist was assisted by some sort of an optical devise to help him come so close to photography 2 centuries before it was invented.
Major controversy ensued when David Hockney, one of the most famous living painters, in his Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters hypothesized that not only Vermeer but many great painters from the 15th century onward must have used some sort of lens-and-mirror contraptions to achieve their photo-realistic effects. Possibly, Vermeer constructed a camera obscura, a room-size optical device that projects a reflected image on to a wall. If so, then his canvases were the result of something like a paint-by-numbers technique.
The art-history establishment remained unmoved and even offended by such outlandish speculations. The notion that the painter’s god-given genius was his only tool persisted.
While all these interesting developments brewed in academia, in San Antonio, Texas, there lived an inventor named Tim Jenison, who knew nothing of it. An article in the Vanity Fair describes him as “curious, careful, soft-spoken, and comfortably schlumpy, he comes across more as a neighborhood professor you might see at Home Depot than as a guy who owns his own jet.”
Well, it was a long — 5 year long — story. Tim Jenison read Hockney’s book and got interested. If such device existed, it could be constructed and used the same way it could have been built and used by Vermeer.
Tim Jenison was many thing, the man of many talents, but he was neither artist nor art historian. Good. Because he became a perfect, “untainted” beta user of whatever he rigged up.
Jenison’s R&D period lasted five years. He went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. “Looking at their Vermeers,” he says, “I had an epiphany”—the first of several. “The photographic tone is what jumped out at me. Why was Vermeer so realistic? Because he got the values right,” meaning the color values. “Vermeer got it right in ways that the eye couldn’t see. It looked to me like Vermeer was painting in a way that was impossible. I jumped into studying art.”
To make a long story short, Tim figured out how Vermeer’s camera obscura worked, and he built the one exactly like it. He learned to paint. He build an exact reproduction of the room in the original painting, and of everything in it. And yes, the painting Jenison decided to produce was The Music Lesson, 29 inches by 25: a young lady at a harpsichord, her music teacher standing at her side, the Delft north light, flooding the room through the windows.
Amazing but true — Tim Jenison DID IT.
Read an article Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?) — it’s fascinating journey, indeed.
There is also a film “Tim’s Vermeer,” directed by Teller and narrated by Penn Jillette.
The movie trailer: