Recreating the Old Masters

"The Music Lesson" by Johannes Vermeer

“The Music Lesson” by Johannes Vermeer

The other night, I was dragged kicking and screaming to Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary film about Tim Jenison, an inventor who had an idea that Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675, “The Music Lesson,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) must have used an optical device of some type to paint his pictures. Jenison developed this theory after looking at Vermeer’s finely detailed and proportioned paintings. How could Vermeer do it, he wondered.

Sounds boring, right? You couldn’t be more wrong.

Jenison was spurred by an idea that the British painter David Hockney suggests in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Hockney’s thesis is that the realism in Western art that developed after the Renaissance was primarily due to painters using optical aids such as the camera obscura. Hockney argues that the photographic quality of detail represented in the work of the Old Masters is impossible to create without some kind of optical aid. Jenison sets out to demonstrate that Vermeer could have used such an optical device by recreating “The Music Lesson.”

Jenison examines the harpsichord he built as part of the recreation of the room for his experiment with "The Music Lesson"

Jenison examines the harpsichord he built as part of the recreation of the room for his experiment with “The Music Lesson”

First Jenison visited The Netherlands. He learned Dutch. He studied the architecture in Delft, where Vermeer lived and worked, and the old Dutch masters. He learned how to mix paints the way they did it in 1650 and then mixed the paints for his own work using those techniques. He learned how to build the furniture that people used in mid-seventeenth century Holland and then built replicas of the furniture you see in “The Music Lesson.” He commissioned a pot that exactly matched a pot in that painting. He learned how to make glass using mid-seventeenth century techniques, and then made his own lenses using that glass for his camera obscura. He met David Hockney and Philip Steadman, a professor who wrote Vermeer’s Camera, which supports Hockney’s thesis.

Jenison built a studio that replicated Vermeer’s. In it, he recreated a room exactly like that pictured in “The Music Lesson.” He built the furniture for it—both the harpsichord and the blue chair. He searched for rugs that matched. He built the windows and recreated the ceiling and floor. Everything matched exactly, to the inch.

He experimented with the idea of the camera obscura. First he built a black box. Then he found that a mirror worked better. Then he discovered that a curved mirror worked better still. Using this setup, he could reflect the image of the room on the canvas, one small area at a time. He then painted under the mirror. When the color on the canvas exactly matched the color in the mirror, he knew he was on the right track. The image emerged. In the most delicate areas, he couldn’t paint for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before the closeness of the work caused his back and hands to cramp. But dot by dot, painstaking line by painstaking line, he painted an exact replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”

He showed his painting to Hockney and Steadman. They agreed: the result was remarkable. And it showed that at the very least, Jenisen’s technique would have enabled Vermeer to achieve the level of detail that he did.

How long did Jenison need to get from idea to execution? 1,825 days. Five years.

So, I can hear you thinking, now I don’t have to see the movie. You’d be wrong. Jenison was probably more than a little obsessed, but he was likeably obsessed. He had an idea, and he explored every avenue until he accomplished what he set out to do. He faced failure and tried again. He got bored and kept going. He had accidents and started over. At one point, after he’s been painting the dots on the rug for about a month, he looks into the camera and says that if they weren’t making a movie, he’d quit. He even held a public rant when he couldn’t see the original “Music Lesson,” which hangs in Buckingham Palace.

But sometimes he had a stroke of luck. A brilliant idea. An experiment panned out. And the Queen relented and let him have a private, 30-minute viewing of the painting.

And he doesn’t quit. He keeps working, and at the end, he’s got his painting, and he’s answered the question to his satisfaction.

For those of you who’ve read Malcolm Gladwell and believe his concept that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, you’ll have noted that the time Jenison spends on his painting pushes him to the 10,000 hour mark. Is Jenison an artist, an art historian, an art expert? No. And he doesn’t claim to be. He had a question about technique and he worked until he demonstrated that his idea of technique could have been used in 1650.

It’s an awesome movie—a lesson about perseverance, following your dreams, and answering your questions. It’s a testament to the imagination and a celebration of it. In theaters now or on Netflix. Or, no doubt, a streaming something near you.


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