This column, like many, is inspired by a documentary. I am an avid consumer of documentaries. The plethora of streaming channels make more available, especially those that did not get their due when they were first released. Tim’s Vermeer is one such documentary. Released in 2013, it is now available on Hulu.
While the title seemed silly, the first five minutes of the documentary grabbed me. An inventor, Tim Jenison, announced that he was going to attempt to paint a Vermeer. His only drawback—he wasn’t a painter and had no artistic training. Instead, Jenison was an inventor whose interest was in making machines work and inventing devices for television and movie graphics.
It sounded like the height of hubris.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I know little virtually nothing about art, so without art history education, I can easily be misled.
Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter in the 1650’s. His works are simply magnificent, with images that appear to pop and feature brilliant details and perspective. (He is my favorite artist.) Unlike most painters of his day, his subjects were primarily women and girls, which seem to give his paintings an inherent sweetness. His detailed backgrounds, clothing, furniture, and facial expressions allow me to imagine what life was like back in Delft, Netherlands. I can feel how stiff and scratchy their clothes were, how plain their everyday objects were, how hard life was. Sometimes his subjects are working (The Milkmaid, The Lacemaker, The Art of Painting), others (Girl with a Pearl Earring) are wearing enigmatic expressions that inspire our imaginations.
So, why did Jenison think that he could paint such a master work of art with no training? Well, because two men, one an art historian, the other a famous artist, have posited that Vermeer and other great painters used optics to assist them.
In 2002, David Hockney, arguably the most famous living artist, wrote Secret Knowledge, a book based on a year of study that convinced him that in the mid 1400’s there was an inexplicable artistic leap in paintings that could not be explained. This was a sea change in art from two dimensional to detailed three dimensional paintings. To explain it, he hypothesized that some of these artists, especially the Dutch, used lenses to help them. A year before, Philip Steadman published books to “prove” that Vermeer used optics.
Hockney’s argument was that this giant leap in painting realism in the mid-1400s stretched credulity to accept that artists somehow made such a major leap in talent in a short time period. He posited that in the mid- 1400s some artists were using optics, specifically Van Eyck, Carravagio, Campin, and van der Weyden. And if you look at those artists through that lens (no pun intended), these paintings do appear similar to camera or video images.
Most art historians disagreed, believing that the use of lenses was a “cheat” of sorts and diminished the talents of the artist.
But it does seem possible that Vermeer used optical lenses. There are several “tells.” First, there are no preliminary sketches of his paintings, many artists sketch before painting (e.g., Van Gogh). X-rays of Vermeer’s paintings reveal no painted over sketch marks either. Secondly, Vermeer painted few paintings in his lifetime (36 confirmed works) compared to other artists. The optical technique that Jenison proposes is very time-consuming. (Although, it is also believed that Vermeer only painted part-time.) Another fact to fuel this hypothesis is that there is no evidence that Vermeer apprenticed with an artist or had artistic training. (Although little is known about Vermeer.) One of the facts that is in evidence is that the Dutch were experts in lenses and optics. It is also known that Vermeer lived next to a prodigious and skilled lens maker who produced very high quality lenses and mirrors. In addition, all of Vermeer’s works were roughly the size of a camera obscura painting (more about that later). Finally, scientists who are experts in human perception have proved that due to image compression in the brain, it is impossible for the eye to see the kind of detail on walls that Vermeer produced.
Vermeer is said to have “painted with light.” His portraits captivate us, his scenes inform us, and his love for each detail renders everyday living in the Netherlands conceivable. Of course, video is projected light.
Many art historians now accept that in order to paint large scenes in perfect perspective, some artists may have used a camera obscura. A tell-tale sign that a camera obscura was used can be the size of the paintings, which tended to be small (30 square centimeters).
A camera obscura (Latin for dark chamber) is a darkened room with a small hole or lens that lets light in and projects a reversed and inverted image on the back wall. It provides artists with perfect perspective and size.
After reading Hockney’s work, Jenison decided to test this hypothesis by creating a Vermeer. He chose The Music Lesson, which is owned by the British Windsors. The first challenge was to design an optical configuration that Vermeer could have used. Jenison invented a method of projecting the image from a camera obscura with a 4-inch lens onto a 7-inch concave mirror. Then the image from the concave mirror reflected onto a 2-inch-by-4-inch mirror. This made the image brighter and sharper and also allowed Jenison to put this mirror in front and directly above the canvas. Jenison simply painted a copy of the image on the mirror and used the edge of the mirror to determine when the image and color were perfect. Clearly a perfectionist, Jenison built the set, ground the lenses to the level of precision that Vermeer would have been able to access, formulated and mixed the pigments, everything to make it authentic to the time of Vermeer. It took over 220 hours to paint Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. (His daughter, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, taught Jenison basic brush strokes. All total, the project took almost 8 years; and it looks remarkably like the original Vermeer.)
The point of Jenison’s obsession is what scientists and technologists call “proof of concept.” Vermeer could have used this method.
But while Vermeer could have used these techniques, there are no records that he did. His beautiful compositions, his super realistic details, his enigmatic models, and his graceful style are what make his works so beloved.
And if he developed such a technique to do this, that makes his work, to me, even more impressive. So, this week, I am taking time to marvel at each of his paintings. They make me smile, they make me think, they awaken my imagination…and isn’t that the purpose of art?
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.