“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. In fact, the entire idea of “genius” is a new concept in itself. 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, and usually produced their work for patrons rather than for themselves.
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.