'Tim's not-Vermeer'

January 29 2014

Video: Sony Pictures

The daft-sounding new film Tim's Vermeer, in which a felloow called Tim sets out to prove that Vermeer was just a clever copyist using a camera obscura, has been rightly taken apart by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:

Tim's Vermeer is a film about a man who totally fails to paint a Vermeer.

That's right – fails. This is not how the acclaimed cinema documentary by American TV magicians Penn and Teller bills itself or how it has been received by reviewers. Inventor Tim Jenison, we're told, set out to discover how the 17th-century artist used optics, hoping to prove his theory by painting his own version of Vermeer's The Music Lesson. The result, we are told, is almost uncannily convincing – Tim uses simple technology to create a perfect Vermeer.

At the risk of offending the education secretary, I have to quote Blackadder here. It's a brilliant theory, with just one tiny flaw: it's bollocks.

Tim's painting does not look anything like a real Vermeer. It looks like what it is: a pedantic and laborious imitation.

In the clip from the film above, Tim concludes that Vermeer's pictures are 'unusual' in having no under-drawing. Which is just wrong. Plenty of great artists didn't rely on under-drawing. And you might think that if Vermeer did rely on a camera obscura, then there would have to be under-drawing. How else would he get the image down onto the canvas?

There is no solid evidence that Vermeer used a camera obscura. The whole camera obscura theory is of course a sad reflection of the fact that nobody can paint like the Old Masters any more. The skills (and the patience) required are gone forever, because the continual, centuries-old link through which such skills were passed from master to apprentice has been broken. You can't learn how to paint like Vermeer, or Rubens or Rembrandt from a book (or even a film), you need to learn it by continual observation over a number of years. And so it only takes one generation to stop painting like, and appreciating, traditional painters for a whole history of skills to vanish with alarming rapidity. And because so few people can paint in the traditional way these days we try and fool ourselves that in fact not even great artists like Vermeer could do it either, and that he was just cheating. It makes us, and it makes modern artists, feel better to think that. As Jonathan Jones says, it ignores the role of the genius.

I'm reminded of my favourite Kenneth Clark line about the history of art; 'Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.'

Update - a reader who has seen the film sends in this well-argued demolition of Tim's theory:

Thanks for posting the article about Tim's Vermeer earlier today. I'm glad someone has finally had the guts to refute Tim's claim of discovering Vermeer's 'secret'. As an artist trained in the traditional crafts of painting, drawing, carving and gilding I went into the film as an open-minded skeptic, looking forward to some solid circumstantial evidence that Vermeer may have used such a device - I left the cinema with a huge grin on my face. What Tim was suggesting is laughable both from a technical and practical perspective. The film was full of contradictions and cryptic messages. Had Tim or any of those involved in the project actually bothered to research the methods of Vermeer or consulted an artist who studies and works in a similar manner to the old masters, obvious flaws would come to light. I'm glad Jonathan Jones attempted to take apart the theory, however his article unfortunately didn't touch on the facts that completely disprove Tim's idea. I've wanted to write an article based on fact, but unfortunately I'm no journalist, I'm a young artist, so I have no idea what I would do with it!

The film was full of contradictions and historical errors from the very start. Tim and his pals claimed that Vermeer didn't make use of underpainting or 'dead colouring' - well he certainly did make use of it! All scientific and forensic tests of Vermeer's paintings show a monochromatic layer where Vermeer would have identified tone, lighting and composition. One of the better examples of this is ironically, 'The Music lesson', the very painting Tim was 'copying'. The National Gallery has a good article on Vermeer's technique here. Why on earth would Vermeer be painting a monochromatic underpainting if he was using a mirror? Had he used Tim's device, he would have to turn the colour reflection from the mirror into monochrome! It makes no sense whatsoever! 

Vermeer, like all masters, used glazes, the application of thin paint to give subtle transitions in colour and tone. The application of paint in this manner gave works a degree of transparency and depth.  Using a mirror, the artist would be expected to mix the exact colour and paint with it. Working in a single layer in this way shows inexperience and a lack of understanding. Vermeer used glazes, so a mirror cannot have been used.

Tim also compared an early Pieter de Hooch with a later Vermeer in the hope it would 'prove' Vermeer had a secret. I was surprised that the directors had the guile to compare a work by a developing artist with a masterful painting by Vermeer at the peak of his ability. Incredibly distasteful considering Pieter de Hooch's later work can rather easily be mistaken for a work by Vermeer by an untrained eye.    

Tim and his team apparently didn't use artificial light. I'm incredibly skeptical about this. Light conditions obviously can change in a second. If the sun disappeared behind a cloud would Vermeer be forced to drop his brush? Well if he was using a mirror, then yes. It's simply impractical! Had Vermeer used a mirror, he would have had to be able to control the sun, the seasons and the clouds. Perhaps he did have a secret after all? Tim didn't once mention the use of natural light once he sat down to paint - presumably he realised it was impossible and resorted to using artificial lights. 

He clamped the heads of his models? Seriously? Need I say more? I could go on, but thankfully I'm not having to prove to you that the idea is heavily flawed.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.