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Why is “Tim’s Vermeer” so Controversial?

A photograph of a man sitting in a room styled in a 17th century Dutch manner. He sits on top of a black and white tiled floor. Next to him is a table covered with a luxurious carpet and a white jug, and an upholstered chair with a cello on the floor next to it. At the back of the room there is an ornate harpsichord with two mannequins next to it. A female mannequin is wearing a yellow dress and sitting by the harpsichord with her back to the viewer. A male mannequin is wearing a black outfit and standing next to her.

Screenshot from Tim’s Vermeer. Tim Jenison sits in his recreation of the room in Vermeer’s The music lesson.

“What do you think about the theory that Vermeer used an elaborate technique involving mirrors when he painted (as proposed in the movie Tim’s Vermeer)?” – asked by Michael

Note: This post will contain spoilers for the movie Tim’s Vermeer.

The documentary film Tim’s Vermeer follows inventor Tim Jenison on his quest to recreate a Vermeer painting using a system of mirrors. The film argues that Vermeer could have used this method when creating his artworks. It also – whether on purpose or not – opens up some interesting art historical debates regarding the concept of “artistic genius” and the separation of art and technology.

I had never seen this movie when I received this question, so for those of you in my situation, here’s a short description: Tim’s Vermeer is a 2013 American documentary film about inventor Tim Jenison’s experiments with duplicating Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. His experiments were based on the idea that Vermeer created his artworks with the help of mirrors. Jenison eventually succeeds in figuring out a technique that allows him to perfectly paint a scene in front of him despite having no artistic training. He thus reconstructs and paints the scene depicted in Vermeer’s The music lesson (1662 – 1665).

A 17th century Dutch painting in a photorealistic style. It shows a room with a black and white checkered floor. A table is covered with a luxurious carpet and a white jug, and an upholstered chair with a cello on the floor next to it. At the back of the room there is an ornate harpsichord with two people next to it. One of them is a woman wearing a yellow dress playing the harpsichord with her back to the viewer. A man in a black outfit and a cane is standing to her right. A mirror above the harpsichord reflects the woman's face.

The music lesson (1662 – 1665), Johannes Vermeer

First of all, for those who don’t know who Johannes Vermeer is: Vermeer was a Dutch artist, and is one of the most famous artists of all time. You might know him as the artist behind Girl With A Pearl Earring (1665). Vermeer was active during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, and is especially known for his beautifully still and intricate genre paintings.

Given that Vermeer is such a famous artist, the film has been controversial with many art historians and art critics. So let’s take a look at what happens in it, and why it’s been so controversial.

Painting using mirrors

The claim that Vermeer used some sort of optical device to create his paintings is not new. Vermeer’s life is still a bit of a mystery to us. As the film states, we don’t have any documentation about how he was trained or what sort of methods he used while painting. We do know, however, that mirrors and optical devices were widely known in 17th century Dutch society. This factor, along with the photorealistic quality of Vermeer’s paintings, has caused speculation about his potential use of mirror technology.

An old black and white drawing showing the camera obscura effect. An image of a face is shown to be reflected on the inside of a small enclosed room. Through the use of lines, the face is shown to be projected through a small hole in the left side of the room, appearing smaller and upside down on the inside left side of the room. Next to the image is text written in Latin. The date 1544 is visible.

Illustration of camera obscura in De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica (1545), Gemma Frisius

Tim Jenison’s theory is inspired by a book, Vermeer’s Camera, written by architect Philip Steadman. It argues that Vermeer used a camera obscura to create his paintings – a theory that in itself has existed since the late 19th century. A camera obscura is a device that allows for a naturally occurring optical phenomenon: when one side of a darkened room or box gets a small hole put into it, the image on the other side becomes projected onto the surface opposite the hole. A lens can then be put into the hole to change the image. Camera obscura devices have been in used as aids for drawing and painting for centuries.

An old black and white illustration of a camera obscura device. Two boxes are shown side to side with a third box on top. At each corner of the boxes are letters. Lines are drawn between the letters to illustrate how it works. Fig. LXXIX is written next to the image.

Illustration of a portable camera obscura device from Johann Cristoph Sturm’s Collegium experimentale, sive curiosum (1676)

The specific technology that Jenison invents (or rediscovers) involves a mirror rather than a camera obscura. The problem with the camera obscura is that, if you try to paint over the projection, the colour becomes distorted. Instead, Jenison fastens a small mirror above the canvas at a 45 degree angle. This allows him to paint around it until he finds the exact colour, constantly monitoring the reflection.

A photograph of a small mirror suspended above a piece of paper. In the mirror we can see the reflection of an image that is not seen in the photograph, but we can tell that the image is sitting vertically next to the paper. Around the small reflection of the image, which shows the eyes of a man, we can see white paint that matches the colour of the reflected image.

Screenshot from Tim’s Vermeer. A demonstration of the mirror technique used in the film.

After some adjustments to the technique, Jenison eventually succeeds in painting an entire Vermeer painting over the course of several years. He does this by reconstructing the exact scene from the artwork in real life and then using the mirror to paint it.

Although we can’t prove it (and might never be able to), the theory holds up. It should, in my opinion, be taken seriously as a possibility. It has the support of art historians and artists, and builds on the two most fundamental art historical methods: visual analysis and historical context.

The reaction

In the film, Philip Steadman tells Jenison that, when Vermeer’s Camera came out, it caused a “really deep anguish” amongst art historians. But if the theory is valid, where does the controversy come from?

Well, in many ways, the movie challenges the idea of “artistic genius”. This is a concept usually applied to the Western canon of artists. The canon is a generally agreed-upon list of the “greatest” artists in art history. It consists of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo, Claude Monet, Rembrandt van Rijn, and – of course – Vermeer. They’re considered the most innovative, groundbreaking artists throughout history – essentially, geniuses.

With very few exceptions, the Western canon consists almost exclusively of white male artists. This norm persists in art historical books, museums, university courses and research. So in questioning the ideals of the canon, we also have to question the idea of “genius”. Do only white male artists possess “genius”, or is a constructed concept? Does clinging to the idea of genius stop us from exploring new, interesting avenues in art history? Does it stop us from actually getting a better understanding of the artists we’re studying?

No matter how much the idea of “genius” has already been challenged, the reaction to Tim’s Vermeer shows that we still have a long way to go. Art critic Jonathan Jones, in his review in The Guardian, argues that – although the theory is “highly possible” – the movie is “a depressing attempt to reduce genius to a trick”. He goes on to say that “the mysterious genius of Vermeer is exactly what’s missing from Tim’s Vermeer. It is arrogant to deny the enigmatic nature of Vermeer’s art.”

Two versions of

Left: The music lesson (copy) (2013), Tim Jenison. Right: The music lesson (1662 – 1665), Johannes Vermeer.

Of course, simply copying Vermeer’s artwork doesn’t make Jenison an amazing artist. Looking at the comparison above, it’s clear that Vermeer has a better handle on things like weight, depth and texture. And Jenison didn’t put together the composition itself – that was all Vermeer. There are definitely some good criticisms out there of the film and the way it oversimplifies Vermeer’s art.

But the film’s very existence forces us to confront our pre-existing ideas regarding the Old Masters. As Jenison points out in the movie, the separation of technology and art is a new concept. And, although ideas of “genius” have popped up throughout art history, our ideas of artistic genius as related to individual originality and creativity, rather than simply talent and knowledge, became ingrained and widespread in the West as late as the 19th century, most clearly shown through the ideals of Romanticism. Before that, artists usually produced their work for patrons rather than for themselves, and often worked with assistants and masters rather than alone.

A 19th century German painting in a realistic style. A man dressed in a black coat with a walking stick stands in the middle of the painting with his back to the viewer. He is standing on top of a rock formation. He is staring out onto a landscape of other mountaintops, implying that he is on the top of a mountain. A sea of fog submerges the mountaintops.

Our modern ideas of “artistic genius” could be said to originate from the Romanticism art movement, such as Wanderer above the sea of fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich.

Reducing Vermeer’s innovations and painterly practices to the useless idea of “genius” actually keeps us from fully understanding his work, and we need to allow space for research that contradicts it. Tim’s Vermeer asks some difficult, but necessary questions. Taking its theory seriously doesn’t mean that Vermeer was any less talented, or that his work should mean any less. It just means that, as art historians, we have to be willing to abolish the idea of “genius” and look at the wide range of artistic practices that exist across the world and throughout history.

Note: Article as been edited to clarify the idea of “genius” as appearing in the 19th century.

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12 Comments

  1. Jody Harmon

    I would suggest that certain art critics have a problem with what they see as a trespass of science within the realm of art, because that is what this really boils down to. I have read scathing rejections of photography as an art form because of this reason. Caravaggio used a type of camera obscure and some have found evidence of primitive photographic techniques in his paintings. Who decides which artists and which methods are qualified as being “genius”? Furthermore, what and who decides what is and isn’t “art”. It’s becomes a rhetorical exercise. If Vermeer did use a mirror device or Caravaggio a camera obscura, it makes their art no less “genius” than those who didn’t use it and may make it more so, as they were able to create and manipulate a technology to improve and/or more efficiently create their art. That’s not a bad thing. We call scientists who create and manipulate technology geniuses, why not artists?

  2. Robbzilla

    Vermeer might not have been an artistic genius, but to call his technique a “trick” is absurd. If in fact, he invented and perfected this technique, he was a technical genius. That doesn’t denigrate him. It only shifts his genius into the technical realm and away from the artistic realm by a fraction.

  3. sam george

    “It wasn’t until the 19th century or so that artists started being viewed in the West as romantic, subjective geniuses. Before that, artists were largely seen as craftspeople”

    Actually this change occurred in the Renaissance, not the 19th century.

    • admin

      Thanks so much for pointing this out! Reading it over again, I definitely inadvertently conflated various ideas of ”genius” throughout art history. I’ve edited the section and made a note at the bottom.

  4. Mike Young

    I’m an artist (a really bad one). I watched Tim’s Vemeer and enjoyed it. It could be the way Vemeer painted but it doesn’t really matter. Art is very subjective, almost religious in the yes of devotees and the thought that someone cheated can really upset them up because it hits at their beliefs and dreams. Art tends to be a system of techniques (tricks to some) but all that matters is whether someone likes looking at it. All the other stuff, like what it’s worth, the historical drama and hype is man-made. If you like something then great and who cares how they did it. Let the money grubbers argue over the rest.

  5. Tuwanku Andre

    Wow it’s just amazing after watching your movie “Tim Vermeer”. Your paint is good. Greetings from Indonesia

  6. Dwight Gaston

    I am another bad artist but I do love art and great artists. What I found intriguing in the film is their assertion that Vermeer’s paintings, when x-rayed, do not reveal outlines nor any preparatory processes, totally unlike other geniuses like da Vinci. Is this true? Did he literally start and finish a painting with absolutely no preparation? Because if it is, doesn’t this make Vermeer more of a genius than all the others? Most if not all the criticisms against the film do not discuss this.
    Another thing is, although we cannot say he painted as good as Vermeer, the fact is he is NOT a painter/artist and yet he painted one darn good Vermeer copy. So imagine if it had been Vermeer himself, with all his gifts, using the device.
    The third point i would like to investigate if this really is a hoax is motive. Specifically, Tim’s motive. He’s a hall of famer awardee. Venerated in his profession. Why would he risk being ridiculed? Why would he suddenly decide to be an actor in a made-up film? Again, that seemingly has not been discussed.
    Anyway, thank you.

    • Alfredo Duarte

      Look up for an YouTube video called “Teller Tim’s Vermeer”. Tim is a close up friend from Penn and Teller, famous Las Vegas magicians. In this interview Teller talks some more about where did the whole movie project came from.

    • Tates

      De never actually claimed Vermeer painted with that device. He always says it’s plausible (he’s allowed to be biased, he raised the argument), but never claims that must be it.
      A lot of people draw their own conclusions of his film, but it was just an experiment to him. Some evidence, not proof and he knows that.

  7. Greg

    In the movie one thing Tim notices is the was the intricate artwork on the harpsichord has optical bowing in Vermeer’s actual artwork — just as Tim started to accidentally do in his own version. This alone is proof that Tim is correct about Vermeer’s method. There is no other reasonable explanation for this trait. However, the creativity of Vermeer to use this method, and his eye and creativity in setting up an artistic scene to paint, are both proof that Vermeer is ALSO a great artist. So he is both technically and artistically talented. It is no sin or taboo issue that Vermeer used this method. And I applaud Tim for having the guts and patience to do a project of this magnitude. Both Vermeer and Tim are inspirational people and that really should be the take-away. I for one am now in awe as to how Vermeer setup and maintained these scenes in order to paint them. If that’s not artistic drive and inspiration, than what is?

  8. Monkey

    I want to correct something that is often overseen and also illustrates the big misunderstanding about Tim’s Vermeer:
    Tim’s painting is not a copy. It’s a reconstruction.
    While he studied the original to understand it better, he did not paint from the painting. Instead he reconstructed the original room (in itself an insane feat), and replicated the paiting process.
    He showed that using his method, he was able to create very similar results, for example in the light values and perspective. That is very different from a copy and not self evident at all.
    If the same scene is painted by different painters from the naked eye, it will not look the same. Nor will it look like a photograph of the scene. Even several photographs of the same scene from different cameras will look different depending on lenses, light sensitivity and so on.

    The arguments around Vermeer’s use of technical devices have to do with very specific properties that can be created only by using these devices. These properties are not present when you paint a scene like that with your naked eye (for examble a specific combination values that cannot be seen by the naked eye, or certain distortions just wouldn’t happen like that).

    Additionally Tim’s reproduction of a potential paiting process also makes you aware how insane painting some areas without technical support would be, for example the pattern on the harpsicord, or the maps that Vermeer often used. It can be done, but it would take a very long time, and wouldn’t have that absolute (“photorealistic”) precision.
    Combine that with the fact that some values in Vermeer’s paintings cannot be seen by the human eye, and it becomes somewhat probable that he used technology of some kind.

  9. Paul Toews

    I make a living as an artist in a rather conservative rural community. More loggers and farmers and businesses serving the same then art appriciators by far. Yet I sell these people original art. A lot of it. I consider myself an artist not just by what I produce on canvas or paper, but by being part of the genius of revealing an appreciation of the beauty that surrounds my community.

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