Was Vermeer a human camera?

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Tim’s Vermeera documentary about a genius inventor obsessed with creating his own Vermeer painting. Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter born in 1632 who specialized in recreating scenes of domestic life in vivid detail. The painting below is a good example of his work.

Johannes Vermeer "The Geographer"
Johannes Vermeer “The Geographer”

The subject of the film is Tim Jenison, a video graphics specialist who made a fortune as a 3D innovator. Jenison believes the photographic quality of Vermeer’s work would be impossible for a human to paint by sight alone. Instead, Jenison suggests the painter used a specialized “camera obscura” to create a mirror image of whatever he wanted to paint. Then he would blend color on the canvas until it matched the reflection.

Jenison isn’t the first to suggest Vermeer used this type of technology to assist in his paintings, but he is the first person who ever set out to prove it. Since no real documentation exists other than the paintings themselves, Jenison decided to recreate a Vermeer painting using only the technology available at the time the painter was alive. The catch? Jenison had no prior painting experience.

Jenison with the optical tools he used  (Tim's Vermeer)
Jenison with the optical tools he used (Tim’s Vermeer)

Through a painstaking process that took over two years, Jenison eventually completes a painting that looks nearly identical to the Vermeer he was imitating. While this doesn’t prove that Vermeer used this method, it certainly shows that it is possible and maybe even likely. How else could the colors and detail in his paintings be so life-like?

Rather than trying to defame or cheapen Vermeer’s work, this film does a great job of showing that art is not always what it seems. It clearly shows the blurred lines between art and invention, painter and tinkerer, and even genius and madness. The movie was directed by Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), and although it was a little dry even for a documentary, I’d still highly recommend seeing it.

vermeer-big
Can you tell the difference? Tim’s Vermeer, left, and actual Vermeer, right (The Music Lesson).

1 thought on “Was Vermeer a human camera?

  1. So the thought is that the Dutch artist must have been using camera technology to create art that is so exact that it closely resembles a photograph? While I can see how Vermeer’s findings lead to this conclusion, I like to believe its explained by the “genius and madness” this human possessed which allowed him to paint by sight alone. We can dream, right? 🙂

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