Film Review: Process & Product, Art & Science in ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

3How did seventeenth-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer paint with such accuracy that his works look more like exquisite photographs on canvas? And if he developed a device that enabled him to capture light and color with clarity not discernible by the naked eye, does that lessen his standing as a great artist and possibly make him a cheat?

The documentary Tim’s Vermeer that opens in Nashville today probes those questions during its 80 minutes. The film, produced and narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by his professional partner Teller, follows Tim Jenison on an eight-year quest to discover what might have made Vermeer’s work so startlingly different from his contemporaries (and many others for that matter).

10It’s probably fair to credit Jenison as the mind behind the modern desktop video world – he founded NewTek in 1985, and developed such innovative products as DigiView (one of the first video digitizers for a computer), DigiPaint and the Amiga Video Toaster®. He’s quite familiar with digital art, but by his own admission he is not a painter.

Jenison wondered if speculation that Vermeer might have used a camera obscura in creating the 35 paintings attributed to him could be proven. In the film he finds that such a device would not be enough – what else could Vermeer have devised to help him see, and then paint, what others could not?

4The film does a good job of presenting Jenison’s journey, including some illuminating interaction with Professor Philip Steadman, whose 2001 book “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces” caused an uproar among art historians and others, and artist extraordinaire David Hockney, who published “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering Techniques of the Old Masters” that same year. He manages to see a Vermeer in Queen Elizabeth II’s private collection at Buckingham Palace (though sadly no camera crew got to go with him), and finally takes on the task of recreating The Music Lesson, painstakingly setting up the conditions he believes Vermeer painted under and then beginning the arduous task (which the film crew documented on a daily basis during a 130-day process) of painting as close a replica of the master’s work as possible.

If there’s any disappointment in watching Tim’s Vermeer – and it’s not a major letdown from my perspective – it’s that the entertainingly irreverent minds that brought us the terrific Penn & Teller: Bulls^&t!  Showtime TV series for eight seasons have created an intelligent audio-visual treatise that cinematically is a dry and by-the-numbers digital affair, even with musical contributions by Conrad Pope. I understand them respecting Jenison’s story for more than one reason, including (as noted in the film) the inventor’s longtime friendship with Jillette, but why not have more fun with this subject than they did? This is, after all, a film intended for general audiences.

9I don’t think it lessens Vermeer’s standing if he developed a device to enhance his ability to paint – it shows he was an ever greater genius if it’s true. As Hockney says in the doc, art and science were happily aligned in Vermeer’s time in a way they aren’t now (though he, and others like me, think they should be viewed in complementary terms). Cheating? Ridiculous – as others have noted that’s like saying it’s cheating to use a paintbrush instead of one’s fingers. And the fact is no matter what Jenison managed technically, Vermeer did it first; and ultimately the master painter’s brilliant artistry, which Jenison cannot capture no matter how impressive his research and results as an attempted replicator, remains unique.

Tim’s Vermeer ( opens today (March 14) in Nashville exclusively at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.); see for times. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, 80 min. Directed by Teller. With Tim Jenison, David Hockney, Philip Steadman, Penn Jillette and Martin Mull.


*Photos by Carlo Villarreal and Shane F. Kelly © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (