Jul 25, 2014

“Tim’s Vermeer”: Geeks, Technology and the Meaning of Art

Can a millionaire technogeek with a Vermeer-obsession learn to paint like the master and make art? An email exchange between a painter, a musician and a blogger…

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

“Was Vermeer a machine?” asks Tim Jenison, geek inventor and wealthy businessman.

The documentary Tim’s Vermeer (David and Margaret’s review) charts Jenison’s obsession with recreating a Vermeer painting, The Music Lesson, using his own ingenious device of the utmost simplicity — a mirror on a stick. It’s so high concept I need only describe it: using a mirror on an extension you look at the reflection of an object in the mirror as it hovers over your painting surface and simply match the tones. No drawing required! See youtube below.

He spent the best part of a year building a facsimile room, making leadlight windows, grinding paints, and then painting with tiny brushes looking into a mirror for 3 or 4 months. I saw it with a couple of friends and left the cinema very persuaded by the likelihood of his technical proposition. Why wouldn’t Vermeer have done it this way?

Here is our email exchange in the day or two after seeing the film.

 Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson  c.1662–1665


Carlo the Painter wrote:

Tim’s Vermeer, Monday 11am session @ Cinema ____.

This okay? Meet at the box office at 10.30 for coffee?



Bill the Musician wrote:

Hi Carlo and Chong,

Thanks for the film on Monday, I have been thinking about it.

The concave lens and mirror is a good theory and possibly true but so what? It certainly doesn’t mean that anyone could have done it, like me for example!

Also the elephant in the room (or the barge on the river) is View Of Delft. There’s no 109 day time frame for that one. If Tim applied his technique to that scene it would look like a bad still from a time lapse film, I reckon.

Anyway, thanks for the invite and hopefully we can see another arty film one day.


Chong the Bloggr wrote:
That’s a brilliant catch, View of Delft, and the other outdoor scenes too.


Bill the Musician wrote:

And isn’t there constantly changing light during one day (weeks, months), even on a static indoor scene? It’s starting to sound dodgy.

Chong the Bloggr wrote:

It means, as we knew all along, that Vermeer’s sense of tone was exceptional, one for the ages.

We can see how different Caravaggio’s tone/colour was — he was another tech-assisted candidate in Hockney’s book.

The cloud scene and shadow in the View of Delft is very fleeting.


Bill the Musician wrote:

In the same way that Mozart would race home from a concert and transcribe everything he heard, Vermeer might have seen demonstrations of new technology, noted the effects, and used them in his paintings at will. He was a genius after all, as was Caravaggio.


Tim Jenison’s painting after The Music Lesson  2013


Carlo the Painter wrote:

Agree with all this.


Chong the Bloggr wrote:

Hey hey, you! What kind of reply is that?! (:-)


Carlo the Painter wrote:

Yes, you’re right. I’ve just spent all day doing family stuff, banking, etc etc, boring. OK.

I thought a lot about the film too. In the end Tim had sort of figured it out scientifically, but not artistically.

I noticed that Hockney admired the attempt but didn’t say … you have solved the mystery! Because what’s really to solve? Vermeer was a creature of the age … excited and open to the new.

A master, like Hockney (his use of photocopier, Polaroids, iPad, video etc) uses the technology of the time, as all artists do or should for whatever means. Sometimes useful sometimes not … but only as a vehicle for the most important concern and that is the sublime narrative/concept.


Chong the Bloggr wrote:

Tim evidently discovered a lost technique. In fact he invented a new/old one as no one else has arrived at his astonishingly simple and elegant method for centuries, and nothing hi-tech about it. Utterly brilliant.

Of course he doesn’t know what to do with it, in terms of art, and it’s not a device that can give you a painterly touch, or furnish you with a personal view of the world. Indeed, one of its machine-like aspects is that it removes any need for painterly opinions about what you see.

Tonal judgement is a particular gift, which I suspect is something that may be impossible to develop if you do not innately have it. Like pitch — how many do you know have perfect pitch, Bill? Anyway, that was a crucial quality about colour rendition that set Tim off on his long chase (over 5 years?).
The mystery then — how did Vermeer make View of Delft? There is no objective tonal benchmark outside complex instruments, but Vermeer’s ‘capture’ of the scene strikes us as the epitome of objective observation. The thrills of his colour choices and impeccably understated composition — so seemingly detached (camera-like) as to be slightly inhuman, the astonishingly momentary sense of the scene because of the deployment of cloud shadow — it feels like the light will change in a minute…

Those thrills are held in suspension and disguised by the persuasion of his supposed objective tonal accuracy. (Vermeer does a blue tonality that nobody else back then seemed to have. Art historians do suspect that some of his blues have come from maybe green and olive tones fading.)

The “sublime narrative/concept” that Carlo speaks of — the thing that in his view artists/painters seek, the transcendent moment (?) is the end of the means. A camera manufacturer obviously is not = Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Tim Jenison making a trial painting with his mirror method.


What was Vermeer seeking to show? It is worth asking because that very thing or some aspect of it is what got under Tim’s skin.

In Anthony Bailey’s View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now which I hold in my hand, the author writes: “Wheelock and Kaldenbach have shown the actual buildings in this scene were sited in less regular pattern than as presented by Vermeer…” Here it goes into detail explaining the way buildings have been shifted and angles altered.

So, far from an image that seems “brutal, photographic” … “as usual Vermeer created a reality whose bits and pieces can be disputed in terms of factual ‘truth’ but whose artistic rightness is overwhelming.”
What Vermeer was showing, then, was not the brutal fact, but an artistically altered state — not objective “reality”, not “a” view of Delft with its suggestion of casual happenstance, but “Vermeer’s” view of Delft, which does not exist as seen beyond its representation in an illusionistic painting.

Which is to say that the thing that most infected Tim, Vermeer’s “precision”is ironically absent. Tim is an inventor, a geek, with a science/process-oriented mind — and he has been successfully suckered by sleight-of-eye, by centuries’ old tromp l’oeil.

In a further irony, it is of course that very illusion of fictitious harmony that enchants Tim. It was always the art of Vermeer that clutched his heart, and not the science. But the perverse beauty is, Tim need never know that, as most people don’t know why they are moved by a sound, or a look, or a conjoining of air and light and motion.


Carlo the Painter wrote:

It doesn’t tell you why you need to make a picture. And the machine doesn’t tell you what to put in it …

The scene that says it all to me is at the end where he is standing with his arms crossed,  with the framed painting over the mantlepiece. Like a big game hunter with his trophy — that very American thing of having conquered it, killed the beast.


Bill the Musician wrote:

And to end my input I’ll say this: All there is left after the beautiful object is produced is the analysis and the copying.

And the simpler and purer the idea (a girl by the window) the more desperate is the deconstruction. There is a micro-thin membrane between the completed idea and the response — “Of course! It’s so obvious, now I can do it too!”

I equate it to a perfect pop song: it’s so dumb and obvious and simple and great … and why didn’t you write it?

Because it is so hard.

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