Tim’s Vermeer chronicles one man’s valiant effort to recreate the unique photorealist quality of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s work with no artistic training, using simple technology that would have been available in Vermeer’s time.

Unless you’re a Vermeer enthusiast or an art historian, Tim’s Vermeer should, in theory, be a rather dry documentary. Yet, with Tim Jenison as the man aspiring to conquer the seemingly unachievable feat, Penn Jillette and Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer is profoundly entertaining while remaining interesting on an artistic-intellectual level. Jenison is unassuming in his attempts, sincere in his inquisitiveness and unfailingly perseverant.

Jenison’s theory about Vermeer using a camera obscura is supported – and predated – in two notable publications: Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera and David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. Both Steadman and Hockney are featured prominently in Tim’s Vermeer, providing further credence to Jenison’s efforts. Perhaps without their interest and admiration for the technique he settled on, it would be harder to believe the veracity of his theory. Needless to say, their respective appearances as well as Jenison’s trip to the Netherlands greatly benefit the documentary.

In an attempt to prove his theory, Jenison chose to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. The documentary shows Jenison’s painstaking efforts to remodel a studio to look exactly like the room in the 1660s painting, as well as his 17th century-appropriate technological invention. Jenison’s attention to detail is undeniably impressive, as is his sense of humor throughout various setbacks.


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Johannes Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’

Jenison’s calling to explain how Vermeer captured light in his paintings had little to do with an art background, rather a background in curiosity. Perhaps because he’s not native to the art world – an inventor and technician – he was well suited to make his artistic journey accessible in a way many wouldn’t be able to. His wit certainly doesn’t hurt either.

By the end of Tim’s Vermeer, it’s not unequivocally proven that Jenison discovered the Dutch painter’s secret. Perhaps proof wasn’t the ambition, but possibility. Regardless, the film offers a compelling argument that Jenison – as well as Steadman and Hockney – might be onto something. The possibility also remains, however, that Vermeer’s recreation of light in his paintings required little more than his paints and canvas.

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