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Tim’s “Vermeer”

I finally saw Tim’s Vermeer, which I speculated about previously. It was entertaining, but I think many of my projections proved true.

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).

vermeer-roomThe 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.

The Tallest Man on Earth: The Gardener

Whose “Vermeer”?

There’s a lot of buzz about a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer. Check out the trailer below. The gist is that it’s a documentary about a guy who sets out to replicate a Vermeer painting because he thinks he “figured out” a “secret” about how Vermeer painted. It’s an interesting premise, certainly, made all the more enticing when we hear that he actually recreated the whole room in order to make the painting. And if that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, did they mention that the guy isn’t even a painter?

It’s easy to forget with the big Hollywood budget, but we aren’t really breaking any new ground here. I’ve touched on some of this before (see Nigel Konstam for a more compelling theory) and we’ve all read Hockney and Steadman on the subject. (An interesting discourse by Steadman can be read here – thanks to Jonathan Janson for the link.)

I haven’t seen Tim’s movie yet, and I intend to, but my early impressions are pretty dodgy. First, lets just get right down to the image; Tim set out to paint a “Vermeer”, so lets take a look at it. Vanity Fair released the image in this teaser interview for the film: Vermeer’s Secret.

Vermeer vs Tim's "Vermeer"

Tim’s painting really isn’t bad, especially for someone who is “not a painter.” But is it as good as a Vermeer? No, of course not. (We must remember that one of these paintings is about three hundred and fifty years old, while the varnish on the other might still be tacky; we have to look past the craqueleur and other signs of time in Vermeer’s painting.) Interested parties should compare the two high resolution images here: The original, on Wikipedia. And Tim’s, on Vanity Fair. But my low-resolution image above will suffice to illustrate the most obvious errors.

Why are there no cast shadows on the floor of Tim’s picture? What’s wrong with the anatomy of his figures? Where’s the light on his viola and chair? And what the hell happened in that picture-within-the-picture on the right?

It’s worth mentioning that Tim painted his picture from a recreation of what in reality may have been a fictional room. It’s no secret that artists have long modified reality to suit their needs (painting something a different color or different shape because it worked better for the composition – not to mention the possibility of pure invention). For all we know, the image seen in Vermeer’s painting might have been a virtual collage of individual parts observed from life separately (this has been common practice among painters for centuries).

Although Tim went to great lengths to recreate the room, he curiously opted to rearrange the figures. His picture isn’t a stroke-for-stroke duplicate, but that wasn’t his intention (despite his actions to the contrary). Instead, he set out to prove that anyone could paint just like Vermeer if they knew about this secret tool or technique which Vermeer relied on to make his pictures. Did he succeed? Well… his painting ‘looks’ like Vermeer’s painting, but that’s due more to the fact that he rebuilt the room than the way he was actually painting. Look how he handled the yellow satin on the blouse – that’s bush league (and it’s the same all over the painting).

From what I can extrapolate (again, I haven’t seen the movie yet), Tim posits that Vermeer used a mirror in such a way as to immediately check his color and drawing against the source. The “tool” reminds us of that Carder thing a few years back – which was essentially a stick you would paint and hold out in front of you to check your mixture against the local color. The “Carder Method” was the subject of much skepticism but it really did the same thing Tim’s “new” device seems to do. It creates a mechanical means to replicate what you see in paint. Just as Carder is flawed, so too is Tim (and for exactly the same reasons). This doesn’t create “art”, it creates a hand made facsimile – for want of a better term. An excellent means for the novice to impress their ignorant friends, but is it anything more? I don’t think so.

I’m also troubled by some of Tim’s comments. One of the best examples can be heard in the trailer linked above. Referring to a section of Vermeer’s painting, Tim says “…this falloff of light is something that an artist really cannot see.” …What?! In a couple earlier interviews (link, link) he even went as far as to say it’s impossible to train one’s eye to see such things, which is just absurd. It makes me wonder if Tom Hanks will be playing “Vermeer” in this movie… no, wait, that was something else.

My impression is that Jonathan Jones from The Guardian really nailed it with this review: DIY Vermeer documentary utterly misses the point about old masters. “Tim’s Vermeer is the equivalent of someone hanging a painting-by-numbers version of a masterpiece over the mantelpiece and claiming it’s as good as the real thing.” My fears exactly.

We shall see. Check here for upcoming showtimes in your area.

The Piano Guys

We saw the Piano Guys live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, February 4th. They were great. If you’re not familiar with them, check out their website here: The Piano Guys

They’re a piano cello duo which started on youtube. That being the case, I felt it fitting to add a couple bootlegs to their youtube presence:

Vermeer and Music

Those with an interest in [good] painting may wish to attend the upcoming cinematic exhibition about Vermeer and Music. The feature length documentary is an extension of the recent exhibition of the same name: Vermeer and Music: The art of Love & Leisure.

A lovely printed catalog is also available – buy it on Amazon here. Preview available at the National Gallery’s website here.

The documentary is a limited run, playing Thursday October 10th at theaters worldwide.
Find a venue near you.

Vermeer and MusicThe National Gallery, London, is offering a fresh look at one of the most startling and fascinating artists of all – Johannes Vermeer, painter of the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.   The National Gallery has chosen to focus on Vermeer’s relationship with music.   It is one of the most popular themes of Dutch painting and reveals an enormous amount about the sitter and the society they lived in.  New research, revealed for the first time at this exhibition, shows how his technique and materials affected his works.  More at www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Tim Marlow goes beyond the exhibition to tell the entire story of Vermeer’s life – and, in doing so, shows in fabulous HD detail many other of the artist’s captivating works.   For those inspired by the 2003 film, Girl with a Pearl Earring, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, this new, cinematic exploration will take their enjoyment and fascination of Vermeer’s life and work to a new level.

To book tickets either use the map on the home page, find your location and click on the links to your local cinema or go to our Find a Venue page

Counting Crows Live at the Sydney Opera House

 Counting Crows Live at the House On-Demand

 And I can’t recommend this one enough: Counting Crows August & Everything After (DVD)

Tallest Man on Earth

Nerdrum Judgement Revoked

Nerdrum Tax Evasion Case UpdateOdd Nerdrum will be retried sometime next year for those tax evasion charges. The previous judgements, which would have had Nerdrum serving 2 years and 10 months in prison, have been revoked pending retrial by the high court. We will have to wait and see.

Read the full translated article here.

Vermeer, in a Mirror?

My sister’s brother’s nephew’s neighbor knows a guy who said this thing which is true. Common sense tells us that the farther something gets from the source, the less reliable it becomes. (Remember that childhood game ‘telephone‘?) This grain of truth is often swept aside in historical inquiries. We must remember to always ask questions. The author’s sources should be the biggest area of concern.

The subject of Vermeer’s technique warrants such a consideration. The facts are simple:

  • We don’t know with certainty who taught Vermeer how to paint.
  • Vermeer did not have any documented pupils.
  • Vermeer wrote no treatise on painting.

A basic understanding of the technical practices of the day does provide some insight into the likely methods used by Vermeer. The Delft School, Fijnschilders, and the whole of Genre Painting are a clear place to start. An excellent resource is found in folks like Dou, de Hooch and ter Borch. We can also connect Vermeer to Rembrandt’s circle by way of Carel Fabrititus, a pupil of Rembrandt who lived (and died) in Delft. There’s no shortage of information, but none is exactly from the horses mouth, as the saying goes.

David Hockney wrote a controversial book called Secret Knowledge. Personally, when I see a painter claiming authority about another painter’s work, the first thing I am compelled to do is look at the author’s paintings. Unfortunately, doing so here would keep us from reading Hockney’s book, which is an intriguing and entertaining hypothesis about past painters’ use of the camera obscura (and lucida). It’s also complete speculation, and in my opinion, false. As it has been several years since I read Secret Knowledge, I’m not prepared to give a proper book report, but Hockney’s argument boiled down to “it would have been too hard for them to paint these pictures free-hand, so they must have traced an image using these optical devices.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) This is obviously flawed.

Hockney’s celebrity propelled his book to some critical acclaim; regrettably, we live in a world where popularity is synonymous with truth. A better argument is found in Philip Steadman’s book, Vermeer’s Camera. Steadman’s argument is far more academic, but still rooted in speculation. (For the record, I love speculation… All I ever do is speculate. But we should all take issue when someone presents their opinions as facts.) Personally, I favor Lawrence Gowing for a speculative analysis of Vermeer’s technique.

Nigel Konstam expands on Gowing’s analysis and poses a compelling hypothesis regarding Vermeer’s painting methods through the use of mirrors. See the following videos:

An article written by Anne Shingleton, the painter in the above videos, follows:
Vermeer’s advantage of using two mirrors, By Anne Shingleton

Nigel also has some interesting theories about Rembrandt, and art history in general.
His blog is worth visiting.

Remember that in the end, we’re all just guessing. Some are educated, others are ignorant. It’s important to remember too, that Hockney’s title is deliberately provocative. There are no secrets. Good painting is made of good observation, and good observation will return good technique. Shortcuts existed then as they do now (far more now, no doubt), but shortcuts will only get you so far without a solid foundation beneath.

Additional texts such as Vermeer and the Art of Painting and the recently released Vermeer: The Complete Paintings are highly recommended.

Katy Schneider

I came across Katy Schneider’s website a while back and wanted to pass it along.
I don’t know her… So I can’t say much about her…

But her paintings, especially the interior/figurative work, are quite wonderful.

Mostly autobiographical family portraits, they have a lovely spontaneity about them. Painted in a kind of short-hand, most things seem abbreviated or condensed down to the essential spots of color.  These small paintings create a visual journal of her life as a mother and painter. Nothing seems contrived or too elaborately composed, lending a sense of candor not often seen in picture making.                            www.katyschneider.com

She mentions recently illustrating a couple of children’s books… Once I Ate a Pie, and Painting in the Wind. But most of the paintings on her website are more than 10 years old.
I’d hate to think she’s not painting anymore… Hopefully the selection is just out-of-date.
(I know how that goes – and I’m not busy with children!)

-Update
Evidently I was too distracted by her beautiful paintings to notice that Katy has several shows coming up. The Wistariahurst Museum in Hartford CT (June 2012), and The Washington Art Association in Washington Depot, CT (September 2012).