A fathomable genius
Engineer investigates Vermeer’s painting technique
Directed by Teller
Starring Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull, and David Hockney
Tim’s Vermeer follows American inventor Tim Jenison as he tests a novel theory about how 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer used scientific methods and equipment to paint. Produced and directed by the Penn and Teller illusionist duo, it occasionally takes a cut-and-dried documentarian tone about Jenison’s experiment, but eventually switches to a more intimate examination of Jenison himself. Its big themes, thoughtful editing, and memorable characters put it in a class of films somewhere between History Channel specials and Hollywood dramas.
Jenison sets out to prove that Vermeer used a specific combination of lenses and mirrors to paint. For decades, art historians were baffled by how Vermeer painted so photo-realistically over a century before the invention of the camera. Most explanations were, in essence, that Vermeer was simply a genius. Jenison, however, doesn’t find that explanation satisfying. At first, I found his thesis about Vermeer’s use of optical devices to be far-fetched. But by the end of the film, after considering Jenison’s compelling evidence, I shared his “90 percent” certainty that Vermeer used the optical devices.
The film also documented Jenison’s struggles with his research. Usually brimming with enthusiasm, Jenison at times reveals frustration and flagging motivation. For example, while completing some tedious tasks for his experiment, he says to the camera, “If we weren’t making a film I’d definitely find something else to do right now.” At one point, he can’t wait to get started with the meat of the project, but when a few things go wrong unexpectedly, he says he’s “not looking forward to doing the rest of the instrument,” and ironically, “This project is a lot like watching paint dry.”
The movie isn’t perfect, even for lovers of art and science. Although released in theaters, it’s better suited for the small screen due to the image quality. It is also a little tedious to watch in one sitting. I would have preferred to pause and watch Tim’s Vermeer over the course of a few Sunday afternoons.
I didn’t fully appreciate the film until a few days after I left the theater. I found myself thinking back to it several times during the day, surprised how it related to everyday life. It has important messages for anyone who feels overwhelmed by “genius” or who doesn’t appreciate how thorough, or even obsessive, one needs to be to prove anything using the scientific method.
The film is careful not to devalue Vermeer’s work, but rather transforms the artist into a fathomable genius whose hard-work, perseverance, and attention to detail helped him create his masterworks. Tim’s Vermeer is worthwhile, especially if you can download it and watch segments at your leisure.