Could anyone paint a Vermeer? This is the question inventor Tim Jenison poses in a provocative new documentary entitled Tim’s Vermeer. For Jenison, Vermeer’s paintings stand out from those of his contemporaries, artists who were all trying to master realistic painting. Unlike the work of his seventeenth-century colleagues, Vermeer’s pieces seem shockingly life-like. This suggests to Jenison that the renowned Dutch painter might have relied more on technological savvy than on innate instinct to create his masterpieces.
Using his extensive background in digital technology, Jenison therefore set out to reproduce Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. The inventor built a meticulously accurate life-size replica of the scene depicted in the work and, employing technology that he believed Vermeer either invented or perfected, was able to create a stunningly accurate reproduction of the Dutch master’s painting. While art historians have long believed that artists have for centuries employed the technique of camera obscura to project an image of a scene onto paper (a precursor to photography,) Jenison believes that Vermeer relied on the optical illusion of camera obscura in conjunction with the use of a concave mirror in order to create vividly realistic paintings. Essentially, Jenison worked on the premise that Vermeer created painted photographs by employing the above-mentioned technology to reproduce scenes pixel by pixel—and there seems to be some truth in Jenison’s assumption. After all, the inventor, whose background in art was entirely non-existent leading up to this project, was able to accurately reproduce a Vermeer.
So what does this mean for Vermeer’s legacy? For how the artistically-unskilled are to view art in general? According to Jenison, his theory regarding Vermeer’s use of technology should not detract from the Dutch master’s status as part of the cannon of classic works of art. While this may no longer make Vermeer an elusive genius, it does make the artist an extraordinary human being. As Tim’s Vermeer shows, employing Jenison’s technique for reproducing Vermeer’s works is a painstakingly tedious and drawn-out process which requires keen technological insight. In addition, although Jenison’s reproduction was quite close to the original, it nevertheless lacked the subtle touches of pure artistic vision that allowed Vermeer to produce breathtaking works of art. In the end, Tim’s Vermeer gives a provocative angle to Vermeer’s career and, while substituting artistic sublimity for mere human genius, poses exciting yet troubling questions regarding the “nature” of art and of artists.