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.

Comments (1)

  1. 9:14 pm, September 2, 2014tim jenison  / Reply

    Hi Thomas,
    I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have about the project.
    Tim

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