In the film, Tim posits that Vermeer used a mirror and lens arrangement, allowing him to compare his color to that of the reflected image; a mechanical system of objective evaluation, which while perhaps valid (the film proved that it worked, after all), doesn’t actually have anything to do with Vermeer. There’s no evidence linking Vermeer’s technique with anything like this, nor is there any evidence linking anyone else from that era (or otherwise) to such a device. The argument, in the film, is that Vermeer’s work contains “absolute tones” which are not present in any other painter’s work. Tim goes even further and argues that the human eye is incapable of seeing these mysterious “tones”, and that in order for Vermeer to have painted them, he must have been aided by some kind of mechanical device.
First of all, what is an “absolute tone”? It’s nothing. This is literally a meaningless term. “Absolute”, in the context of color, is indefinable (color, of course, is made up of hue, value and chroma and is a blanket term for the sum of those three parts). What makes a color “absolute”? Your guess is as good as mine. And “tone” is equally problematic. People often use “tone” in place of “value” to describe the lightness or darkness of a color, but we can’t be certain in this case. (And even if we replace “tone” with “value”, the term is equally meaningless.) The film does not make any effort to define this term, they just point at a part of the painting which looks to me like a very regular color. The whole premise of this investigation relies upon this claim about how there’s no way an artist could have seen these types of things (and therefore could not have painted them). No evidence was provided to support this claim, nor was any further investigation provided.
Instead, Tim went on to describe the human eye. He offered a disclaimer when talking about what the eye can and cannot do by reminding us that he’s not a doctor. Which was a segue to the scene which followed, where a doctor explained the inner workings of the human retina. This did not, however, apply directly to Tim’s claim about “absolute tones”. It was fluff.
Later in the film, he suggests that Vermeer’s “Lady with a Red Hat” would have been the first picture in which this mechanical method was employed. The problem, however, is that this picture was painted several years after “The Music Lesson“, which was the focus of the film (a strange fact which they omitted).
The picture Tim painted looks like Vermeer’s only because of the extreme lengths he went to recreate the actual room; he created a room that looked like a Vermeer painting. And this was a notable achievement. But nothing about his painting technique, nor the mechanical means by which he arrived at the image, had anything to do with Vermeer. At several points in the film Tim links this process to that of a photograph. Film didn’t exist back then, but they were essentially creating hand-painted photographs, through the use of a lens and a mirror. And that’s what he proved – this is perhaps something from history which may have been used by any number of artists. It’s equally possible that Tim invented it outright. Did Vermeer use it? We don’t know. Is there any tangible evidence in favor of that hypothesis? No. It’s all conjecture.
I’m a fan of anything that gets people looking at old paintings. And for that, I applaud the film. But like many documentaries, this one was plagued with bias mascaraing as fact. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t hurt Vermeer any.