What if Johannes Vermeer were a machine?
That’s the question posed by Tim Jenison in “Tim’s Vermeer,” a highly watchable documentary about Jenison’s obsessive investigation into how the 17th-century Dutch painter was able to paint with such verisimilitude and luminosity.
In the course of Jenison’s five-year odyssey, the inventor, video engineer and unapologetic non-painter attempts to create, by hand, a painted replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”
He’s not interested in copying the painting itself. Jenison saw the original once, when he was granted a 30-minute viewing by Queen Elizabeth II, who owns it.
Nor is he interested in making a copy from a printed reproduction.
Instead, Jenison actually builds a scale model of Vermeer’s studio and fills it with life-size replicas of every stick of furniture, as well as human models, in the painting. He’s interested in painting exactly what — and possibly how — Vermeer painted.
Jenison’s theory is that the artist used readily available 17th-century technology to help him create his art: specifically, a room-size projector, known as a camera obscura, to translate the three-dimensional scene in his studio into a two-dimensional image on a flat surface.
This is not the first time someone has alleged that Vermeer may have used such a device. Most notably and controversially, painter David Hockney and author Philip Steadman have both put forth this argument.
But Jenison takes their speculation a couple of steps further, building a souped-up camera obscura that eliminates some of that antique technology’s inherent drawbacks — reduction in image brightness, for one thing — and introducing a second tool: an small yet ingenious mirror that allows Jenison to compare the projected image with the picture he’s painting of it. (And yes, mirrors were available in the 1600s.)