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Movie review: 'Tim's Vermeer' unlocks a centuries-old mystery

Tim's Vermeer


If you could peer behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, would you? Do you really want to know the secret behind the prestige? If the anonymous author of the works attributed to Shakespeare were truly Edward de Vere, would you really want to know?

Tim Jenison finds he's no Johannes Vermeer ~ or is he?
Sony Pictures Classics

Perhaps. But then again, think carefully. You think you want to, but what happens when the illusion shatters, and all one's known must be recalculated like an errant GPS?

Of course some of us scream, “Yes. Yes I must know!!” If you, like I, are amongst this lot, then you are in for a thrill of the first order.

"Tim’s Vermeer" documents the intrepid quest of Tim Jenison of San Antonio, Texas. Inventor and longtime friend of Penn & Teller’s Penn Jillette, Jenison found his fortune through several remarkable inventions, all having to do with optics, with visual display, with the ways in which the eye processes what it sees, and with the ways in which to feed imagery into to that process.

And in his off time, Tim has an affinity for the work of legendary Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It’s easy to see why.

Made known to the modern non-art world by 2003’s "Girl with a Pearl Earring" starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, Johannes Vermeer was relatively uncelebrated during his life, but eventually grew to renown as one of the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age.

Without going too far down the path of history lesson, suffice to say that Vermeer painted with an eye quite unlike any having come before or since. As shown in the film (facilitated by Penn and directed by Teller), Vermeer embraced a unique and secret methodology, demonstrating a dazzling ability to manipulate light and color into an astonishingly realistic outcome.

It’s a methodology that has confounded artists and art historians alike for 350 years.

Until now.

Enter Tim Jenison, a man with a theory. A man with the time, the resources, the curiosity, and pure dogged persistence to carry forth that theory to the bitter end. And either it’ll be a colossal waste of time, or… he’ll have a Vermeer.

"Tim’s Vermeer" plays like "The Da Vinci Code" for tech geeks and mystery junkies. The extreme and scientific lengths to which Jenison goes will daunt even the most Felix Ungered, Sheldon Coopered among us, and along the way, the film sheds light (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the lengths to which Vermeer himself went to achieve the outcome. No small task here, boy.

When Jenison is done, we learn with likely 95% certainty (personally, I’d peg it at 99.99) that he solved one of the most tantalizing mysteries dangling before us today: how on earth did Johannes Vermeer paint with photographic effect and accuracy 150 years before photography was invented?

Arthur C. Clarke asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.“ Vermeer’s 17th-century technique, whatever it was, appeared so startlingly realistic as to feel magical to the observer, and it took the practiced eye of a 21st-century techie to tease out the methodology that artists were too close to see.

So what now the impact upon the value of Vermeer’s work? Does knowing his secret in any way diminish his accomplishment? Does it somehow undermine his unprecedented (and to date unreplicated) result?

It’s an interesting question, particularly given the reverence with which so many (myself included) regard creative inspiration. As when it was discovered that Earth revolves around the sun and that it is, in fact, round, new truths tend to upset. But interestingly, it wasn’t the artists’ community that yowled, it was the art historians’; the painters themselves took it in largely stride, while the people who study, codify, and comment upon art kicked up quite the kerfuffle upon peeking behind the curtain and finding the actual man.

Contrast this world view to that of the three who pursued the goal of "Tim’s Vermeer", each of whom a staunch atheist. To them it seems the question was interesting to be sure, but more one of solving a riddle vs. gaining insight into the psyche of an artistic Master. One even occasionally senses from Jillette a certain underlying stance that solving the mystery somehow “debunked” or “exposed” Vermeer’s talent, as though its practicality somehow commoditizes its beauty.

Of course (she says) such is ridiculous, as is also pointed out in the film. But even should it be to any extent true, the sheer tenacity required of the painter offsets the argument entirely. Vermeer conceived the method and Vermeer alone executed it, and where Jenison barely survived it the once, Vermeer planned and completed it thirty-four times at minimum count.

Beauty and its execution take many forms; as said at the bottom of, Code is Poetry. Here, as Jillette put its it, Tim’s discovery simply "turns [Vermeer’s] unfathomable genius into fathomable genius." Genius nonetheless, according to any definition.

"Tim’s Vermeer" explores a trade secret on the order of the recipe for Coke, and in so doing reveals the genius, creativity, meticulousness, patience, and stamina of Johannes himself. And it does so with a pure thrill, reminding us that what’s before our eyes may well not be what we’re seeing at all, and that the art and the technology, together, is what creates the magic.

Story: Texan inventor (and non-painter) Tim Jenison sets out to replicate a painting by the legendary 17th-century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer.

Genre: Documentary, Mystery

Starring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette

Directed by: Teller


Running time: 80 minutes

Houston release date: March 7, 2014 at the Landmark River Oaks theater

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, the Landmark website, or your local listings

Screened Feb 17th 2014 at the Landmark River Oaks theater in Houston TX

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