How did Johannes Vermeer paint photo-realistic art 150 years before the invention of photography, and how did his paintings capture light in ways the human mind cannot ascertain? Convinced that the Dutch master painter’s works are too perfect to have been painted with merely the aid of the human eye, inventor Tim Jenison conducted an experiment to paint a replica of Vermeer’s work, which he chronicled in the documentary, Tim’s Vermeer.
The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
Initially, Jenison believed that Vermeer used an optical device called the camera obscura to trace images onto a particular medium, which he then filled in with the colors that were projected onto the screen. After several attempts to replicate this process, Jenison realized the method leads to the wrong choice of colors being applied to the painting. Later, Jenison also discovered that the colors applied to the canvas did not match in tone and hue because a darkened room is needed to maintain the integrity of the object’s original color.
After much consideration, Jenison came up with another theory. The result is the creation of an optical machine consisting of “a 4-inch diameter lens with a focal length of 28 inches, a concave mirror with a focal length of -12 inches, and a small first-surface mirror mounted on a stick” (Vermeer’s painting might be 350-year old photographs). This system of lenses and mirrors allowed Jenison to easily view the source image while staring directly at the canvas, giving him a constant reference for comparison. Jenison made the lens himself using materials and methods from the 17th century, as well as replicating Vermeer’s painting to the very last detail.
Jenison spent five years perfecting the process, and it took him seven months to paint The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer. Although the results are stunning, two questions remain. Was this in fact the method used by the famous Dutch painter, or was he simply a genius with an eye like no other?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, Tim Jenison, a man who never painted in his entire life, took an idea and applied his theories with technologies of the past to work out a problem that no one has ever accomplished before.
The Music Lesson replica by Tim Jenison, 2013