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Vermeer the Movie, Coming Soon

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 5, 2013

Johannes Vermeer, "A Lady Drinking and a Gentleman" (c. 1658), oil on canvas, 66.3 x 76.5 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin (via Web Gallery of Art)

Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Drinking and a Gentleman” (c. 1658), oil on canvas, 66.3 x 76.5 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin (via Web Gallery of Art)

The painter Johannes Vermeer is known for his incredible treatment of light and the near-photorealism of his 17th-century scenes. How did he do it without the use of a camera, which was invented some 150 years later? That was the question driving art layman and Texan entrepreneur Tim Jenison when he went on a quest to understand the artist and his art. Jenison’s journey was captured on film by Teller, of the magic act Penn & Teller, and will be released as a documentary next year by Sony Pictures Classics, Deadline reports.

Tim’s Vermeer, as the film is titled, follows Jenison in his decade-long attempt to piece together Vermeer’s technique and achievements with only 17th-century technology. He travels to Vermeer’s hometown of Delft, Holland; to Yorkshire to meet artist David Hockney, who’s a proponent of the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura for his compositions; and to Buckingham Palace, to see the Vermeer painting kept there. Jenison is an inventor himself, having founded a company called NewTek in 1985, which makes video and imaging software for computers. (His NewTek bio  calls him “the visionary force behind the desktop video revolution.”)

Given its combined subject matter, it’ll be interesting to see whether the movie ends up more of a tale about Jenison — a kind of Errol Morris–inspired eccentric personality doc — or about Vermeer, in the vein of populist art history. We’ll hope for some kind of cross between the two, with the added flair of Teller’s sharp, wordless magic.

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  • Jeffery LeMieux

    Contemporary realist painters have little use for Hockney and his theories. It is clear that Vermeer knew about the camera obscura, lenses, and projections. After all, the executor of his estate was Anton van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope. But to attribute “cheating” by projection and tracing to Vermeer (and van Eyck) is ludicrous. The most recent exhibition of Vermeer’s “Girl with Pearl Earring” at the High Museum in Atlanta ran a short documentary film about the camera obscura and Vermeer. The most that could be said is that Vermeer may have used the camera obscura to view out-of-focus images that helped break down and simplify color and shape, something that he would have had to remember, not “trace.” And if anyone has ever tried to make a painting by “tracing,” they’d know that what Vermeer was able to do in his 36 known works had nothing whatever to do with access to a camera obscura to “cheat.”

    • LJenison

      You just wait and see!! Being a hacker is not cheating; its being a genius!

    • Jane Jelley

      I have also been doing experiments in my studio to see how Vermeer might
      have used a camera obscura, recently published in the journal ART AND
      PERCEPTION,
      and available on my website http://www.printedlight.co.uk. It is possible that
      a rudimentary tracing and transfer process might be partly
      responsible for the effects of light and variable focus in Vermeer’s pictures,
      rather than the use of a mirror.

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