Kay: Tim’s Vermeer

The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer

“The Music Lesson” by Johannes Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer is a documentary film about an inventor, Tim Jenison, who had an idea that Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675, “The Music Lesson,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) must have used an optical device of some type to paint his pictures. Jenison developed this theory because Vermeer, unlike most of the other Dutch painters of the period, did not keep records of his work. He did not document his apprenticeship, how he mixed paint, or anything else. He did not develop sketches for his paintings. He did no underdrawings on the canvas.

How, Jenison wondered, could Vermeer do it? How did he paint those finely detailed and proportioned pictures? How could Vermeer tackle the quality of the light?

Jenison was spurred by an idea that the British painter David Hockney suggests in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Hockney’s thesis is that optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors boosted the advances in realism in Western art after the Renaissance—that the level of accuracy represented in the work of the Old Masters is impossible to create by “eyeballing it.”

Jenison sets out to demonstrate that Vermeer could have used an optical device to help his painting. He went to The Netherlands. He studied the old Dutch masters. He visited Delft, where Vermeer lived and worked. He studied the architecture. He learned Dutch. He learned how to mix paints the way they did it in 1650. He learned how to build the furniture that people used in mid-seventeenth century Holland. He learned how to make glass and he ground his own lenses for the camera obscura. He commissioned a pot that exactly matched a pot in the Vermeer painting “The Music Lesson.” He met David Hockney. He met Philip Steadman, who had written a book called Vermeer’s Camera. In that work, Steadman argues that a close study of the paintings demonstrates that Vermeer did use the camera obscura and achieved some photographic effects with it.

Tim Jenison examines the harpsichord he built for his experiment with the camera obscura and Vermeer's painting, "The Music Lesson"

Tim Jenison examines the harpsichord he built for his experiment with the camera obscura and Vermeer’s painting “The Music Lesson”

Jenison set to work. He built a studio with a north light, as Vermeer had. He built a room exactly like that pictured in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” He built the furniture for it—both the harpsichord and the blue chair. He searched for rugs that matched. He acquired a viola da gamba. He built the windows. Everything matched exactly, to the inch.

He experimented with the idea of the camera obscura. First he built a black box. Then he found that a mirror worked better. Then he discovered that a reflecting mirror worked better still. Using this setup, he could reflect the image of the room on the canvas, one small area at a time. He then mixed paint and painted under the mirror. When the color on the canvas exactly matched the color in the mirror, he knew he was on the right track. The image emerged. In the most delicate areas, he couldn’t paint for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before the closeness of the work caused his back and hands to cramp. But dot by dot, painstaking line by painstaking line, he painted an exact replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” And remember—this was done by a man who’d never painted a picture of anything in his life.

He showed his painting to Hockney and Steadman. They agreed: the result was remarkable. Did it prove anything? No. But it showed that Jensen’s technique would have enabled Vermeer to achieve the level of detail in his paintings that he did.

How long did Jenison need to get from idea to execution? 1,825 days. Five years.

Oh, good, I can hear you thinking, now I don’t have to see the movie. The reason I was so taken with this story is that Jenison—okay, so he was probably more than a little obsessed, but he was likeably obsessed—had an idea, and he explored every avenue until he accomplished what he set out to do. He faced failure and tried again. He got bored and kept going. He had accidents and started over. At one point, after he’s been painting dots for about a month, he looks into the camera and says that if they weren’t making a movie, he’d quit. He even held a public rant when he couldn’t see the original “Music Lesson,” which hangs in Buckingham Palace.

But sometimes he had a stroke of luck. A brilliant idea. An experiment panned out. And the Queen relented and let him have a private, 30-minute viewing of the painting.

And he doesn’t quit. He keeps working, and at the end, he has a really good replica of this painting. He demonstrated a technique that Vermeer could have used and showed how it could have been done.

So what did I take away from this, besides awe at Jenison’s perseverance? This: Do the research. Work hard, and work every day. I’m going to bear down on my WIP, and I’m going to finish it. And I’m going to do it in less than five years.

And when I finish, it’s going to be good.


18 thoughts on “Kay: Tim’s Vermeer

    • I hate to overpraise something in the event my audience doesn’t share my enthusiasm and is let down by expectations set too high, but I just thought this film was so interesting. Also interesting was that Penn and Teller—the magicians—were involved. Penn narrated, and Teller directed. Penn said that he and Jenison had been friends for years, and that naturally he and Teller would be interested in concepts of illusion.

  1. That’s a magnificent obsession. I definitely want to see this movie – thanks, Kay! Lots of food for thought in this post.

    Five years of relentless pursuit – sounds as though he’d be around the fabled 10,000 hour mark. I keep wondering about that. I think I read on Chuck Wendig’s blog that his first book took him five years (I was relieved to read that the second one took him months, not years). I intend to finish mine this year or die tryin’, so I guess I’ll just have to re-define my starting point 🙂

    • I’m hoping that as novelists, we won’t necessarily need the 10,000 hours for one book. We can become accomplished with 10,000 hours spread over multiple books. Here’s hoping, anyway!

  2. I heard about this! Fascinating story. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the “work” is the movie, and also the process. I followed one of my chains of thought to the fact that if I duplicated a classic novel, nobody would be praising me. But the point isn’t really about that, is it? I like your reaction to the story!

    Jilly, have you read any Malcolm Gladwell? I can’t remember which book he talks about 10,000 hours of mastery in. I think it might have been Outliers. He’s a great writer, although you need to take it all with a grain of salt.

    • It is Outliers, Michaeline. I’ve read reviews, haven’t read the book or any Malcolm Gladwell, but he’s on my TBR list. Instinctively I do buy the general idea of taking 10,000 hours to develop an expertise in anything.

      • The 10,000 hours concept that he presents there is really compelling. And you’re right—I hadn’t thought about it, but Tim Jenison’s five years is about 10,000 hours.

      • I do think the 10,000 hours is a very encouraging concept for beginners (like me). People *do* suck in the beginning, and maybe you really can’t tell if someone is going to be great for sure until after they’ve put in a good deal of work. I’ve seen counter-proposals that also make some sense. One guy made a cogent case that the Beatles suck, even with 10,000 hours of mastery — but I think that’s really a case of “they aren’t my cup of tea” problems. Too many people think the Beatles don’t suck. I think it takes a certain amount of genius to make something so simple and memorable. I can use some of their songs in an English as a Foreign Language class because they are so simple. And the kids like them, because they have that memorableness about them.

        • I like the idea that whatever level of talent you may have, with time and application you can learn to make the most of it. If you’re not a genius already then it won’t make you one, but it will help you to become the best you can be. That improved you still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (personally, I’d be very happy to suck as badly as the Beatles 🙂 ).

          I love to watch tennis, and you see it very clearly with young players who join the professional tour. Some of them have incredible talent, but even if they work their socks off every day (and many of them do), it still takes them a few years to learn their trade at the very highest level. It’s fun and interesting to watch them develop.

        • Exactly! I would like to suck like the Beatles, too. A lot of people think Beethoven sucks, too. I don’t know if I’d like to suck like Philip Glass — I yearn to be more popular than clever. PG seems to be adored by a rather small (but, gotta admit, super-passionate) fanbase.

          Got it! I’d like to suck like Weird Al Yankovic! With a fun fanbase, and a few people who really get me while I’m doing something not-so-serious but oddly apt at times.

    • The movie Tim’s Vermeer got trashed by the art reviewer in The Guardian, who says there’s no mention of what art is, or what makes good art, and (essentially) that Tim Jenison is stupid for using his gizmo to “make art.” (So I think you’re right—likely no one would praise you if you duplicated a classic novel.) That reviewer completely misses the point, in my view, which is an experiment about technique. And then secondarily, a lesson to all of us about following our ideas and committing to work. And I might add, Jenison is wealthy, so he had the time and resources to commit.

      • Oh, that’s right, Tim is really wealthy. I can’t remember WHERE I heard about this. Maybe NPR? But Tim used to be a computer programmer or something and made a lot of money, IIRC.

        I wonder if his experiment’s trashed The Guardian reviewer’s idealistic view of Vermeer, so the reviewer’s anger got displaced . . . .

        (-: Still, it’s all publicity, and fascinating.

      • The Guardian takes its art very seriously, so I can understand that this kind of experiment might give them palpitations (reducing genius to a process), but I agree, that’s missing the point. Even if Vermeer used a camera obscura to get the level of accuracy he was looking for, yay for him. It makes him an innovator but not any less of an artist. He devised a new technique and had the eye to create the compositions he wanted and set up the light to give the effects he was seeking.

        And yay for Tim Jenison for using his time and wealth to pursue a fascinating theory and to document it so that the rest of us could be encouraged to think and question.

    • As soon as you said that, Jeanne, I went to Tracy Chevalier’s site. I couldn’t find anything about Tim’s Vermeer, but for the quilters among us, she has a great story on the home page of her blog about a men’s prison quilting project she was involved with. For the crafters among us, it’s worth checking out.:-)

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