Tim's Vermeer

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Tim's Vermeer
Tim's Vermeer 2013.jpg
Directed by Teller
Written by
Produced by
  • Penn Jillette
  • Farley Ziegler
CinematographyShane F. Kelly
Edited byPatrick Sheffield
Music by Conrad Pope
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Release dates
  • September 5, 2013 (2013-09-05)(Toronto International Film Festival)
  • January 31, 2014 (2014-01-31)(United States, limited)
Running time
80 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,671,377 [1]

Tim's Vermeer is a 2013 documentary film, directed by Teller, produced by his stage partner Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler, [2] about inventor Tim Jenison's efforts [3] to duplicate [4] the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer, in order to test his hypothesis that Vermeer painted with the help of optical devices. [5]


The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival [6] and was released in limited theatrical release in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics on January 31, 2014. [7]


The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer Johannes Vermeer - Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson' - Google Art Project.jpg
The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer

Tim Jenison is an inventor and successful founder of NewTek, a company working in various fields of computer graphics, most notably the 3D modeling software "LightWave 3D." Jenison, himself both an engineer and art enthusiast, becomes fascinated with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, a 17th-century Dutch painter whose paintings have often been said to exhibit a photographic quality. Jenison, spurred by the 2001 book Secret Knowledge by British artist David Hockney and Vermeer's Camera by British architecture professor Philip Steadman, theorizes that Vermeer potentially used a camera obscura to guide his painting technique.

His initial idea, that Vermeer used a simple light projection to paint, is quickly discarded after concluding that painting over a projection makes it nearly impossible to match the colors correctly. Jenison then has an epiphany of using a mirror to monitor parts of the picture: by placing a small, fixed mirror above the canvas at a 45-degree angle, he is able to view parts of the original image and the canvas simultaneously, and obtain a precise color match by continuously comparing the reflection of the original image with what he has put on the canvas, moving from area to area by simply moving his own point-of-view slightly. When the edge of the mirror "disappears," he has it right.

Building a quick, crude prototype and using a photographic portrait of his father-in-law, Jenison produces an oil painting that looks nearly identical to the photograph. After building a prototype with a lens that is able to capture a real-life object, Steadman and Jenison, neither of whom has classic artistic education, take turns painting and produce an impressive oil painting of a vase. Both Hockney and Steadman note that their respective books have caused controversies in the art historian circles, who viewed the hypothesis as an "intrusion of crass rationalists" and "the misunderstanding of the nature of art."

Jenison believes he may be able to reproduce The Music Lesson as a painting with this technique, and plans to physically recreate the original scene; first he models the entire painting in LightWave, then proceeds with a painstaking process of re-creating the objects and setting within the original scene which includes him doing woodworking, carpentry, sawing a lathe in half, and almost seven months of handiwork. Jenison also insists on using only techniques and tools available to Vermeer in the 17th century, mixing his own paint and polishing his own lens. Once the scene is set and is visually identical to the original painting, Jenison sits down and meticulously begins to paint.

During his process, he observes a variety of oddities of Vermeer's work that he attributes to the hypothesis of Vermeer having mechanical help: He notes Vermeer's hyper-accurate recreation of diffuse lighting would be impossible to recreate by simple eyesight because of color constancy. He also observes that some of Vermeer's work features chromatic aberration and bokeh depth of field, two distinct features of a photographic lens but not of the human eye. While painting the virginal, he accidentally notices that while he used a straightedge to roughly sketch out the outline of the instrument, the curvature of the lens almost caused him to add a slight curvature to the virginal's seahorse-pattern itself. Curious, he looks at a print of the original painting and notices that the original painting has the same curvature in the pattern.

After four months, Jenison finally finishes painting the picture, and after adding a layer of varnish, he has an emotional moment taking a final look at his work. Observing the results of his work, Steadman and Hockney both feel confident in their hypothesis that Vermeer had been using the same (or similar) tools to create his paintings, noting that "the painting itself is a document." The final shot of the film is Jenison with his copy of The Music Lesson above his fireplace.


Tim's Vermeer has been met with positive reviews from film reviewers and technology enthusiasts. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 89% based on 107 reviews with the consensus reading: "Entertaining and profound in equal measure, Tim's Vermeer uses its seemingly esoteric subject to pose fascinating questions about art and obsession." [8] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 76 out of 100, based on 32 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews. [9]

The film was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary and shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2014. [10] [11]

Art critics Jonathan Jones and Bendor Grosvenor have criticized the film and disagreed with its conclusions. Jones wrote in the Guardian: "The technology Jenison relies on can replicate art, but it does so synthetically, with no understanding of art's inner life. The 'Vermeer' it spits out is a stillborn simulacrum." [12] [13]

See also

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Johannes Vermeer</span> Dutch painter (1632–1675)

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. During his lifetime, he was a moderately successful provincial genre painter, recognized in Delft and The Hague. Nonetheless, he produced relatively few paintings and evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.

NewTek, Inc. is a San Antonio, Texas-based hardware and software company that produces live and post-production video tools and visual imaging software for personal computers. The company was founded in 1985 in Topeka, Kansas, United States, by Tim Jenison and Paul Montgomery. On 1 April 2019, it was announced that NewTek would be wholly acquired by Vizrt.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chiaroscuro</span> Use of strong contrasts between light and dark in art

Chiaroscuro, in art, is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures. Similar effects in cinema, and black and white and low-key photography, are also called chiaroscuro.

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The Music Lesson, Woman Seated at a Virginal or A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman by Johannes Vermeer is a painting of a young female pupil receiving a music lesson from a man. The man's mouth is slightly agape giving the impression that he is singing along with the music that the young girl is playing. This suggests that there is a relationship between the two figures and the idea of love and music being bridged together. This was a common theme among Netherlandish art in this time period. Vermeer consistently used the same objects within his paintings such as the draped rug, the white water jug, various instruments, tiled floor and windows that convey light and shadows. This is one of few paintings produced by Vermeer which were kept in his home until his death in 1675 when his family was forced to sell them. It became a part of the Royal Collection, and it is currently on display in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London.

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  13. Tim's not Vermeer