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.

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Comments (2)

  1. 1:06 pm, May 8, 2014Kevin  / Reply

    Nice blog…
    I just wanted to express my interpretation of Tim’s film. I believe his ‘absolute tone’ was referring to the fact that a camera (presumably digital) can precisely quantify a specific position of hue/value in the spectrum – and can assign a very specific numeric value to it – and reproduce that hue/value with unwavering certainty again and again. The same could never be said about a human painter. I might be the world’s biggest Vermeer fan, but I think there is no question he used some form of camera obscura or lens arraignment. I thought the tell-tale curvature of the piano case that Tim detected – undoubtedly pointed to a lens of some sort being employed. But despite the likely use of some “artificial” means to achieve exacting proportion and detail, good luck to anyone trying to (re)create the atmospheric softness of a genuine Vermeer. That, to me, was the glaring difference between the two works. And that difference, more than anything else, is the genius/uniqueness of Vermeer.
    Another point, if I might; Tim is right about the eye’s subjectiveness. We know the eye instantly will adjust its tonal “dynamic” range based on what is being viewed. This is a huge advantage over a camera – which has much more of a fixed (really, inflexible) range. They eye will see tremendous subtlety within a range of dark values or within light values. But this feature of a human eye also limits the ability to ‘see all values all at once’. A camera has it all over the eye in this respect. Which is why Tim claimed Vermeer could never have detected the logarithmic decrease of light across the back wall with such precision. I would dispute this assertion myself, but Tim had the equipment and means to measure and analyze such a gradual change with a high level of objectivity. (I still resist his conclusion, however.)
    My takeaway from the film was this- I’ve never seen a film about someone (easel) painting, where the main focus was on the very act of painting. To me, that was wholly remarkable in and of itself – without boring his audience to tears. I also admired his incredible perseverance.

    • 2:44 pm, November 17, 2015thomas  / Reply

      Hi Kevin – Please pardon my delayed response as I neglect this blog and apparently its activity as well!

      Tim’s Vermeer was a very nice film. I own a copy gladly. Tim offered to lend an interview but as we were trying to get it scheduled he went quiet. I’d still love to do that – if Tim is out there listening.

      I don’t dispute the fact that Vermeer used the Camera Obscura to aide in his work. He probably used half a dozen other tools to a similar end. This has been proven (not by Tim, much previously). The question of how he used them, however, has always been the issue. Without getting into all of that, because frankly I’d need to go thumb through my library for a refresher prior to the conversation, the issue I had with Tim’s film is that it had nothing to do with Vermeer. He could have set up a Rembrandt painting and attempted to do the same thing. He recreated the room, which was amazing to watch and see at the end, but he painted it with such brutally in-eloquent brushwork, it had nothing to do with the way Vermeer painted.

      I also take issue with the fact that he didn’t seek out any realist painters to talk to about his ideas, as of course they would have blown them apart. To talk to a part time painter/actor and a modern artist, is hardly to seek out someone who might have followed Vermeer’s lineage.

      It was a fun film, it called attention to a Vermeer – which is always good – but it didn’t do anything. He didn’t succeed in recreating Vermeer’s painting. He built the room, which I’d buy from him if he had it for sale, but he didn’t actually do anything related to Vermeer as soon as he picked up the paint brush.

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