Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Tim Jenison is an inventor and software developer based in San Antonio, Texas who became obsessed with discovering the secret of 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s incredibly photographic paintings. Enlisting the aid of the famous illusionists and entertainers Penn and Teller, he has brought to the screen a fascinating project, spanning six years, to test the theory that the famous artist used a camera obscura and a mirror to copy the image of the scenes he carefully staged for his paintings. Jenison displays both the patience mentioned by the apostle Paul and the hope that he would be able to recreate Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” Tim Jenison serves as narrator and his partner Teller directs the film.
Only an entrepreneur with deep pockets could have done what Tim Jenison achieved—travel to London to consult with a famous artist there; then go to Holland to see the painter’s works first hand; and then return and in a San Antonio warehouse carefully build the artist’s studio depicted in the painting so that he can project the image onto a surface with the camera obscura that he had built. The guy even grounds his own lenses in his desire to use only the resources that Vermeer would have had. Yes, and this obsessive attention to authenticity includes grinding and mixing his own oil colors as well, there being no tubes of paint back then! To duplicate the exact design of the furniture in the original painting, Jenison sets up a lathe and turns the table legs himself. Darn if he didn’t even have to cut the lathe in half and remount it to make it wide enough to turn the overly long sticks of wood into the legs. Talk about obsessiveness in regard to detail—and yes, he also builds the harpsichord that is in the painting! Eventually he gets down to tracing the image of the studio and the woman and her music teacher onto a canvas and applying paint (after trying it with a photograph). The result is an amazing replica of the original by a man who says he never has taken an art lesson.
Tim says that this does not prove that Vermeer actually used a camera obscura, but that he might have. This raises the question of what is artistic creativity, or what is the boundary between technology and art? He remains in awe of the artist, as well as he should. Although his painting—and we should stress that it is not a copy, but a painting of the studio using the same techniques Vermeer supposedly used—bears a marvelous semblance to “The Music Lesson,” it is definitely a secondary work inspired by the genius who set up and created the original. But what a copy! The film will interest art lovers, as well as those enjoying watching an inventive man with plenty of means carry out his dream.