Tim Jenison is not your typical documentary subject, which is why I went against my usual rule and agreed to interview him. It may have been the first time I talked solely with a nonfiction character without also interviewing the filmmaker. Breaking another rule, I also agreed to the interview without having seen the film in question, Tim’s Vermeer, which is about Jenison’s potentially groundbreaking theory about the masterworks of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.
The interview went rather informally, with the conversation occurring over the phone while Jenison was riding on a bus “up in the mountains where there’s this brunch going on.” Our connection was continually lost as a result of his remote location, but in the end I was convinced that Tim’s Vermeer was something I had to see. This call, I should note, took place before it was shown at Telluride, where it generated a ton of buzz over the weekend.
One of the first questions I like to ask documentarians is why did they choose such and such or so and so subject. Naturally, the equivalent with a subject interview is to ask why they think they were special enough to be the center of a film. Jenison, who is relatively well known in the computer industry as an early pioneer of digital video and graphic design tools in the 1980s but not at all known for being an artist or art theorist, happened to be friends with the producer, Penn Jillette. And Jenison told me that the inception of the film project began one night as the two were simply having dinner.
“We sat down and [Jillette] said, ‘I don’t want to talk about show business, I don’t want to talk about politics… Can we just talk about something else entirely?’ I said, ‘Well, I think I’ve figured out how Vermeer painted his pictures.’ He said, ‘What?!’ And so I explained it to him. I showed him video of this test that I had done. I’d basically copied a photograph in oil paint. I’d never painted in my life, but the experiment worked perfectly. Just way too well. I told him that I’d been researching it and hadn’t found anybody exploring the same lines, no records that anybody had posed this. I found every book I could find related to the topic. And nothing, just nothing.”
What Jenison had posed was an explanation for how Vermeer achieved the photorealism in his paintings, specifically with regards to getting the colors and tones exactly right. Most historians until now believe the artist probably used the optical device known as the camera obscura as a projector. But Jenison felt there was something missing, because that method would only allow for tracing shapes but not colors. He also figured that the actual way it was done could allow anybody to paint photorealistically. It took him years of thinking about this puzzle to finally come up with a hypothetical answer that nobody else had thought of.
After hearing about his friend’s discovery, Jillette asked Jenison what he planned to do with this epiphany. “‘Well, I’m going to write it up. Write a paper on it,’” Jenison answered. Jillette said, “‘That is a really stupid idea. This could be a movie.’”
And so it went, with Jillette “using his showbiz savvy and connections” to get the documentary rolling, bringing in his stage partner Teller in as director and taking on the job of producer alongside Farley Ziegler, with whom he’d worked on The Aristrocrats. “At that point it became an obsession,” Jenison told me. “It turned into basically a full-time job. So I decided that the way to prove this theory best would be to paint something that would look exactly like a Vermeer, if I could. So I built an exact full-size copy of one of his rooms that appears in his paintings and had to construct all the furniture myself, the architectural features of the room. There was an old oriental rug, we had to find that. Basically when i got done with that it was a full-size room that looks like a Vermeer. Then I set up this apparatus and started to paint.”
He discovered quickly that it didn’t work.
“It was close,” he says, “but I could not see well enough to paint the detail that I saw in the Vermeers. That set me back, but I eventually discovered an additional missing ingredient, and then I was able to paint. It took me seven months. It’s very simple and elegant and it works extremely well. Like I say, you can paint a Vermeer with this device. I’m not a painter at all, and I ended up with something that looked almost exactly like Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, which is the painting that I decided to try to emulate.”
Initially, they thought the film was going to be about Vermeer. They also thought it would be made in a year. It’s now four years later, and Jenison told me they only just finished a few weeks ago. And after going through thousands of hours of footage, Jillette decided to focus on his friend’s personal challenge and the trek that led to his conclusion and a successful replica, including all the false starts and hard work that went into all that. “It’s more about my trying to do this thing that turned out to be much harder than anybody thought,” Jenison explains.
Has it really always been so impossible to copy a Vermeer? As in just creating a replica, no, but that’s not quite what was achieved here. Jenison clarified the difference for me with an interesting bit of history: “Art students sit in a museum and try to copy paintings, but to sit down and paint a Vermeer from scratch, nobody has been able to do that. People have tried. There was a famous forger just before World World II, a famous case — one of the richest men in Amsterdam, a guy named Han van Meegeren, who ‘discovered’ a whole bunch of new Vermeers and sold them. Well, he’d been painting them himself. After the war he was tried for treason because he sold one these Vermeers to one of the Nazis, and they put him in jail. And he said, ‘I did not sell a Vermeer to the Nazis. What I sold them was a forgery. You should call me a hero.’”
Somewhat surprisingly, Jenison has never read the novel or film Girl with a Pearl Earring, which not only increased mainstream familiarity with Vermeer over the past decade but also involved a kind of mystery about the artist’s work, although that has more to do with the question of who is in the paintings rather than how they were made. Yet Jenison did become interested in the figure around the same time, through the release of David Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge, which addressed the change in art around the 1500s, when painting became far more realistic.
Hockney appears in the film, as do Jillette and Teller, though Jenison tells me there’s not much of the filmmakers on screen outside of when they’re all walking around together. “We were very casual,” he says about that part of the shoot. But a lot of the time neither they nor any crew was on hand. “Most of the filming consisted of me surrounded by cameras. Unmanned cameras most of the time. It was seven months, full time, of painting. There’s a ton of material. The ratio of shot to used must have been over 1000 to 1.”
Another familiar face appearing in Tim’s Vermeer is actor Martin Mull, whose role I was especially curious about as both a fan and someone who hadn’t seen even a still or clip of the documentary yet. “He was brought in as a sanity check,” Jenison told me, “as well as being an entertaining person on screen. Early in the film I explain my concept to them and he tries out the device. This is before I started building the room and trying to make the real Vermeer. I bounced the idea off him and he reacted.”
Jenison says the film has some surprises, but the real question is whether it will have any impact on the art world. “The device itself is quite an eye-opener,” he answers. “We don’t claim that it’s absolutely the only explanation. It’s just a really good explanation. And if it’s true, it does change art history in some ways. Other artists may have used the same device. That’s what I’m exploring now, tracing this back and seeing how the idea may have traveled. There’s a lot of secrecy around art. Trade secrets.”
And given that the documentary has been under wraps until very recently, Jenison hints that it could provide a sudden shake up for art historians.
“Nobody knows about it. Nobody knows a thing.”
The official world premiere of Tim’s Vermeer happens this evening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.