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Vermeer’s visual magic is tested in new film

An inventor creates his own optical aid in an experiment to paint like the Dutch master

In his warehouse in San Antonio, Texas, Tim Jenison plays the viola de gamba he used to furnish his Vermeer room. Photo: © Tim Jenison, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Did Vermeer use a camera obscura to paint his highly detailed canvases? The longstanding art world debate is put to the test in a new film directed by Teller (of the well-know magic team Penn & Teller) that was recently screened at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. In “Tim’s Vermeer”, the inventor Tim Jenison, who is untrained as a painter, sets up his own version of a camera obscura in a warehouse in Texas and traces an ultra-precise version of The Music Lesson by Vermeer. The experiment bolstered Jenison’s view that the Dutch master enlisted the technology of lenses to enhance what his eyes could see, but also questions whether the use of an optical aid would lessen Vermeer’s standing as an artist.

The experiment began when Jenison, who founded of the firm NewTek and created the successful brand of video editing software and hardware Video Toaster, brought the idea to his friend, the magician and performer Penn Jillette. Jillette’s stage partner, Teller, whose parents were both painters, directed the film.

Teller compares Jenison’s project to his own medium, magic. “The biggest secret of any magic trick is that the magician is willing to go to much more trouble than you would ever have dreamed a person would, just to make a selected card appear in an unexpected place. Most really great art is that way too. It appears very easy, instantaneous. To get there, you had to spend an enormous amount of trouble. And the effect is magical.”

The film is Teller’s first feature-length production and while it was widely praised in Toronto and Telluride, the director expects skepticism. “People are resistant to the idea that Vermeer might have used technology to help him, because they love the fantasy that someone could just walk up to a canvas and, divinely inspired, paint perfection, without a sketch beneath it. That makes the person into a supernatural being. It’s superstition. It’s arguing that magic is real,” Teller says. “Magic isn’t real. But the fact that human beings can achieve magical effects is not only real, but glorious.”

Teller stressed that knowing this secret, or the secret of any artist, won’t diminish a viewer’s appreciation of that artist.

“This is one of those magic tricks that, when you know more, rather than less, about how it’s done, it gets more amazing,” Teller says. “That’s true of almost every magic trick. Over the years, I’m less and less fooled by magic tricks, but I more and more enjoy the experience, because I know more about what goes into it.”

Jenison also defended the project and the argument for Vermeer’s use of lenses. “It’s not a shortcut. It’s not cheating. It’s just a way to get toward perfection,” he says. “When we make special effects movies today, we think nothing of using every trick in the book to get a special image on the movie screen.”

And the seven months spent painting in a strained position to achieve the final work was anything but easy. “It was torture,” Jenison says. “I guess we don’t use that word any more. It was enhanced interrogation.”

“Tim’s Vermeer”, 80 minutes, directed by Teller, will be shown next at the New York Film Festival, 27 September-13 October.

Tim Jenison makes his first painting using his invention, the “comparator mirror” and a photograph of his father-in-law. Photo: © 2013 Tim Jenison, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
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16 Sep 13
16:10 CET


Vermeer was good friends with van Leeuwenhoek the man who invented the microscope. So Vermeer must have had access to the latest lens technology and most certainly used this technology.

11 Sep 13
19:6 CET


I am a follower of Penn & Teller, and find the article by David D'Arcy fascinating. The link between art and magic has been nicely covered, with both utilising methods not always commonplace to produce a desired effect. Thoroughly enjoyable reading. Thank you. Bob.

10 Sep 13
17:48 CET


I think that it is very likely that Vermeer used a camera obscura and have found a way he could have transferred images from the lens directly to his canvas. See my website for details of my experiment, recently published in the journal ART AND PERCEPTION. Scientific analysis has shown that Vermeer worked in stages and that the first layer of his pictures are dark underpaintings, without line. Colour tracings under the projection would have been almost impossible and do not fit the evidence. My suggested method has results that correspond with contemporary working practice and that look strikingly similar to Vermeer's own work. Jane Jelley Oxford UK

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