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In the opening scene of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, a San Antonio man named Tim Jenison talks about his goal of replicating a painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer, perhaps best known for “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” is renowned for creating works with such incredible textures and depth that his images are photorealistic—150 years before the invention of photography.
There are no records of Vermeer as an artist apprentice, nor any discernible sketches beneath his vivid images. Thus he became known for his mysterious ability to “paint with light.”
Jenison, looking nearly stricken as he describes his mission, admits that reproducing a Vermeer—an obsession that kept him awake at night—seemed impossible. “It’ll be pretty remarkable if I can,” he says. “Because I’m not a painter.”
Jenison is an inventor and compulsive tinkerer. He’s won Emmys for innovations such as the Video Toaster, an early-1990s gizmo that could edit and stream video. But during the 80-minute film—produced by Penn & Teller, with Teller directing—viewers see that Jenison is better described as a Renaissance man. He may have run some of his theories by art historians and sometimes asked others to help him with the nuts and bolts of the 1,825-day project.
To recreate Vermeer’s exact environment, however, as well as the tools he had access to 350 years ago, Jenison built rooms, lenses, and furniture himself, with everything carefully measured. He even traveled to Holland and learned Dutch. He learned how to grind paint. “If it were left up to me to make paint,” says narrator and illusionist Penn Jillette, “there would be no paint.”
Tim’s Vermeer is sprinkled with such humor, with the ingenious Jenison not above reacting to setbacks with a “Motherfucker!” or telling actor/artist Martin Mull that it took him about a half-hour to master the use of a paintbrush. “Oh, good for you,” Mull responds. “It took me 40 years.”
Jenison’s trial-and-error research resulted in him agreeing—to a point—with experts that Vermeer must have used a camera obscura. But when he tried to paint an image using only that technology, he failed. Eventually he added a couple of precisely positioned mirrors and successfully recreated a black-and-white portrait of his father. Emboldened, Jenison was ready to begin the big one: Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” currently residing out of tourists’ sight in Buckingham Palace. (Did he fly over to see it? Of course.)
When the real work started, Jenison’s attitude vacillated between “This is fun!” and “If we weren’t making a film, I’d find something else to do right now.” Once the historically correct setup was in place, Jenison spent the next 130 days working on his canvas, his impatience growing. “You know,” he says to the camera, “this project is a lot like watching paint dry.”
Jenison’s finished work is a result of not artistic ability, but of geometry and physics—and if you lean more toward the creative side, you might find his fastidiousness and talk of optical machines and such tedious. (Hell, even he did after a while.) It’s more likely that anyone with a hint of curiosity will be engrossed. When Jenison shows his piece to some Vermeer experts, one says, “I think it may disturb a lot of people.” Or fascinate them.