Fairs Fakes and copies Features Switzerland

Make your own Vermeer

Art Basel Film includes an inventor’s lengthy—and not entirely successful—attempt to copy the master

Tim Jenison devoted 1,825 days to recreating a single work

There’s a new Vermeer on show in Basel this week. But it’s not by Vermeer; it’s a film about an inventor called Tim Jenison, who came up with a gee-whizz gadget to do with television production that has left him with some money and an interest in historical optics. He’s also a friend of Penn Jillette of “Penn and Teller” fame.

Tim’s clearly a very talented man who can turn his hand to most things technical and takes an interest in what goes on under the hood. So when he ends up having a close look at Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, 1662-65 (initially in reproduction), he can’t work out how the painter managed to achieve the effects he did, given the presumed limitations of his age. This is the territory mined by Philip Steadman in his book Vermeer’s Camera (Oxford University Press, 2001) and by David Hockney in Secret Knowledge (Thames & Hudson, 2006), and they both appear in this film, along with the brain and perception scientist Colin Blakemore. But Tim being Tim, he decides to take it all to pieces and see for himself what occurred.

Before you know it, he’s knocked up a near-perfect replica of the room that Vermeer painted, learned to make paint the old-fashioned way, done a nifty bit of glass-grinding to make the devices he’s convinced Vermeer must have used (if he’s right, it’s a classy trick, so no spoilers here) and even cut his own lathe in half so he can get the leg of a virginal to just the right length. And Penn and Teller are along for the ride, the latter showing a steady hand as director, the former acting as producer and calmly enthusiastic narrator (except when they get to England and they think the Queen isn’t going to let Tim see the original painting—then he’s slightly less calm).

There’s a cute graphic doing the rounds via social networks that seeks to explain the creative process using a kind of felt-tip bar chart over time. The last bar is annotated with the words “all the work while crying”. Jenison might not have left all the work to the very last minute, given his circumstances seem to allow him as much time as he needs, but as he finally sits down to work, the crying part of the equation gradually kicks in. The scale of the task is enormous, now that all the preparation is out of the way. When the tears do flow, it’s hardly surprising. The painting has taken him 1,825 days from the initial concept to the last coat of varnish.

Penn Jillette is adamant that “my friend Tim painted a Vermeer. In a warehouse. In San Antonio. He painted a Vermeer.” Not exactly, Penn. He copied a Vermeer. Slowly and laboriously. As a great big show-and-tell project. And while he may, possibly, have contributed to the art-historical investigations by the likes of Steadman and Hockney, it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about why art is great, although Penn has a go when he says: “Unfathomable genius doesn’t mean anything. Now he’s a fathomable genius.” Hockney is perhaps nearer the money when he says of Tim’s painting: “I think it might disturb quite a lot of people.”

Sooner rather than later, someone, possibly even Tim Jenison, is going to come up with a computer-powered device that will exactly copy a Vermeer, a Caravaggio or a Titian (the Modernists are easier to do, which is why forgers congregate around them, rather than the Old Masters). And it won’t be a Vermeer, a Caravaggio or a Titian either. But they will sell by the yard, depending on the price point.

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a finely crafted and engaging film that takes Penn and Teller’s sceptical agenda, no bad thing when it comes to debunking rogues, and uses it as a sledgehammer to crush a nut. The painting we get is just a fancier version of an Empire State Building made out of matchsticks. In a high-tech garden shed.

“Tim’s Vermeer”, Stadtkino Basel, 21 June at 8pm, followed by a Q&A with Tim Jenison and producer Farley Ziegler

More from The Art Newspaper


16 Jul 14
0:31 CET


Aren't you missing the point. Tim is not playing God or guilty of sacrilege. He is not passing off an original. He is opening the wonders of art into possibilities of exploration for intrigued would be artists. We are given insights into the 'how' if it all. How inspirational

24 Jun 14
15:18 CET


No I don't think Tim's Vermeer is a Vermeer but I think it solves a real problem -- why there are so few, to get the level of detail Tim's time to do the actual painting right.

23 Jun 14
21:1 CET


I agree with Jane Jelley about paint being worked up in layers. That is what makes the painting luminescent and transcendent. However the film does a good job at exploring how lenses are used to draw the proportions of the room onto the canvas. As also discussed by Hockney. For me the genius of Vermeer isn't diminished at all (by using lenses) it shows how clever and dedicated an artist is in getting the imagine they want by any means necessary. Using technology ( by artists) as an ends to a means isn't as new as perhaps we once thought. Good film!

23 Jun 14
15:49 CET


Thank you Jane Jelley for your comments and for access to your paper. Most helpful insights.

23 Jun 14
2:19 CET


I think Lain the writer is missing the point. Tim wasn't trying to copy the painting. He was figuring out the process. It was a great movie!

23 Jun 14
2:23 CET


The film is good entertainment, but to compare Jenison's end result with Vermeer's is like putting a 3D print-out of an iphone next to the real thing: the outside might bear some comparison, but it is a dead, hollow copy. Jenison's use of equipment is far fetched, and he has tried to work 'all in one go', using one layer of paint, applied dot by dot. There has been considerable scientific and historical research which shows that Vermeer did not paint this way. Like other artists of his time he worked in stages, waiting for each layer to dry before progressing to the next. On top of a knifed ground on his canvas he applied an underpainting, and then a layer of cheap earth colours. Then he 'worked up' with brighter, more expensive colours, and used glazes. To see a way Vermeer could have transferred images from a camera obscura projection without the use of mirrors, go to: www.printedlight.co.uk Jane Jelley Oxford UK

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email letters@theartnewspaper.com


Share this