In a rented warehouse in San Antonio, Texas, inventor and tinkerer Tim Jenison whittles the leg of a wooden harpsichord. Midway through the laborious process, he realizes that the lathe he is using to carve ridges into the leg can’t accommodate its length. Rather than risk compromising the accuracy of the reconstruction he is working on by cutting it in two parts, Jenison improvises and takes a power saw to the machine, slicing it in two. This allows him to extend the lathe just a few more inches.
Jenison is in the process of constructing an exact replica of the scene in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson (1662–5) and this instrument is a key element. In the Dutch artist’s painting, a man and a young woman stand at a harpsichord in a sunlit room. Through a series of geometric tricks, lighting effects, and reflections, the viewer’s eye is drawn directly to the couple. By recreating the scene in fine detail and then painting it, Jenison hopes to demonstrate how Vermeer could have accomplished such optical illusions.
Jenison’s obsession is the subject of a new film by his longtime friends, the magicians Penn & Teller. Titled Tim’s Vermeer, the documentary opens in select cities Friday and nationwide on January 31.
Penn & Teller’s cameras follow Jenison every step of the way—from his trip to Holland to study Vermeer’s paintings, to the design and construction of his 17th-century scene.
The group even travels to England to meet with David Hockney, whose Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters inspired Jenison’s project. In the book, the British artist argues that Vermeer used optics and lenses to help him achieve his visual effects.
At the start of the film, Jenison asserts that while he has dreamed of completing this project for years, he has very little artistic experience. To prove that he can reproduce a highly detailed image using an optical device like those discussed in Hockney’s text, he first tests his theory on a small scale. Jenison turns an old photo of his father-in-law upside down—emulating the effects of a camera obscura—and sets up a small mirror to reflect the image over the surface on which he wishes to paint. Using the reflected image as a guide, carefully matching his paint shades to the reflected portions of the photo, Jenison creates an almost-exact replica of the photo. “If I could do a father-in-law,” he says in the film, “I could do a Vermeer.”
But Jenison knows that replicating Vermeer’s elusive, magic light will take more than a small, circular mirror. He constructs a device using a series of lenses and a large, curved mirror that reflects his subjects with photographic detail and reproduces that mysterious glow.
Jenison then painstakingly crafts the furniture and sets the scene, careful that no detail goes unnoticed. And after installing his optical device, he’s ready to paint. He starts with the window and floor, and diligently works his way to the ornate harpsichord and rug. When it becomes time to paint the student and teacher, Jenison employs live models in order to make his piece as accurate as possible.
His lens apparatus allows him to paint with accuracy, but the process is still incredibly time-consuming. As Jenison’s painting progresses, it becomes apparent to the viewer that the labor is far more tedious than even he expected it to be. After struggling to render the blue chair on day 82 of painting, Jenison divulges his frustration, saying, “If we weren’t making a film, would I quit? Yeah, definitely.”
But Jenison perseveres and sees his project through to the end. He paints for approximately five hours a day, and the piece takes more than 100 days to complete. Ultimately, it is Jenison’s patience, good humor, and dedication that drive this film.
“That tone is maybe the most important part of the movie,” Penn Jillette told ARTnews. He quipped, “besides the fact that Tim has changed art history forever.”
Image on home page: Tim Jenison assembles an experimental optical device. Photo: Shane F. Kelly, ©2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.