Vermeer’s Secret

Tim Jenison, an inventor obsessed

Like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) still capture us, centuries after they were created. Witness this past holiday’s phenomenon of lines of people in their heavy winter coats, snaking down Fifth Avenue, patiently waiting to see The Girl With the Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection, on loan from the Maritshuis in the Netherlands.

Hundreds of thousands of other people devoured The Girl With the Pearl Earring the novel, and The Girl in Hyacinth Blue the novel. You know a painter has literary caché when he makes it as a lead character onto the contemporary fiction best-seller list.

Now an Iowan/Texan inventor named Tim Jenison proves that even scientists succumb. Jenison, who founded the highly successful 3D video company NewTek, became so obsessed with Vermeer he worked relentlessly for eight years to re-create a work of Vermeer’s in a most unusual way. His perseverance and the questions his obsession provoke is documented in a newly released film from Sony Classics, produced by Penn and Teller, called Tim’s Vermeer.

As an inventor of new technology, Jenison became interested in the idea that Vermeer may have painted his masterpieces, famous for their incredible detail and depiction of light, not by painting in the conventional way, but by using technology that he may have invented. Jenison read books by Philip Steadman and the British painter David Hockney which postulate that some of the Old Masters, Vermeer included, used optics, special lenses and a camera obscura, to create their super-realistic work.

Tim Jenison took the idea a step further — well, many steps further. He thought and thought, and experimented, and came up with a device, using a simple lens and a small mirror, that would allow him, even with no prior artistic training, to paint an image on canvas exactly as it appears in life. He wanted to prove that using this device, he could re-create Vermeer’s famous The Music Lesson, which currently hangs on a wall at Buckingham Palace.

In order to accomplish his goal in the most authentic way possible, Jenison set up a room in a warehouse in Austin Texas that looked exactly like the room in The Music Lesson. Since the 17th century objects in the room no longer existed, he had to produce them himself. He made all the furniture in the room, including the shell of the virginal (in the movie, one can see Jenison turning the instrument’s legs on a lathe.) He made the glass windows, with their 17th century style panes and iron frames. He commissioned a textile mill to produce the same rug covering the table in the foreground of the painting, down to the individual wool knots. He even got his daughter Claire to pose as the young woman at the virginal (her sisters fixed her elaborate 17th-century up-do.)

He mixed his own paints for the canvas using the pigments that would have been available in Delft in Vermeer’s time. When he sat down to paint using his lens and mirror contraption, it took hours, days, weeks, and months of painstaking work; in the film, one sees him carefully using a tiny brush and applying oils to canvas, a task so meticulous and tedious that Jenison admits on camera that he would have quit, were he not being filmed.

In the end, Jenison does paint his own The Music Lesson. It is a work so credible that Hockney and Steadman, upon examining it, can’t help but laugh. They admit there is a great probability that Jenison may have thought up the very device Vermeer could have used.

Is it possible to imagine J.S. Bach exploiting 18th century technology to compose his Baroque masterpieces? How could any technology help create Bach’s unique and magisterial counterpoint, his sublime melodies? I don’t think it’s possible. We have manuscripts and “fair copies” (handwritten copies) of his work. We have first-hand accounts of how he composed by those who knew him — his creative methods were not secret, (as Vermeer’s were), since his house was always full of students and family members.

Does this mean that music, in a way, is a superior art form to painting?

Music, after all, informs the film. One of the first clues to Jenison’s drive to innovate and to persevere comes at the beginning of the story, in a home movie clip from his youth. It shows him as a young boy, laughing and sitting at a player piano, which he has just taken apart in order to teach himself to play swing.

And then there is the subject of the painting itself: a young woman at a keyboard, her music teacher standing to the side, a viola da gamba resting on the floor.  Decorating the front of the virginal, a proverb in Latin reads:

Musica laetitiae comes, medicina dolorum

“Music is a companion to joy, and a medicine for pain.”

Perhaps Vermeer has given us the answer.




There are 6 responses to “Vermeer’s Secret”

  1. Wonderful blog entry! The Goldfinch already got me “in the mood” for this interesting piece.

  2. I was fascinated by the lengths to which Jenison went to try and figure out if Vermeer could have created his masterpieces in an unconventional way. I was further intrigued by your wondering if such a thing were possible with J.S. Bach and his music. What if many of our assumptions are false about how great art is created? How much should it change our opinion of the final result?

  3. In the case of Vermeer and some of the other Old Masters such as Caravaggio, their methods were carefully guarded (like a secret recipe,) so we can’t really know how they created their paintings. That raises the question: which part of the process is “art” — the composition, the use of color, the artistic “vision”? Or should technique be considered, too?

  4. While I would not be able to argue whether music is a “superior art form to painting,” as a result of your wonderful blog entry, I realized how honest and generous is the act of learning, interpreting, performing, and creating music. No subterfuge in the process, just talent and hard work. My appreciation for music has grown, once again, due to you.

  5. Debbie- Beautifully written blog post. EF

  6. I believe that all parts of the process should be considered “art.” In other words, the choice of subject matter, lighting, materials, all contribute to the final result. I don’t have a problem with what Vermeer is believed to have done. How is that different from throwing paint at a canvas and calling the splatter art? I am an equal opportunity appreciator of all things “art.”