The Tim of the title is Tim Jenison a digital video visionary who founded NewTek Inc. in 1985. Vermeer is of course, Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter known for his domestic interior scenes of women mostly. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is perhaps his most celebrated piece. This essentially documents the video software entrepreneur’s desire to explore how Vermeer was able to achieve such photorealistic treatments in the 17th-century. The attention to detail in Vermeer’s work is indeed extraordinary. Furthermore, evidence shows that Vermeer didn’t even bother with preparatory sketches. In 2001, artist David Hockey proposed the idea that some virtuosos relied on optical devices to compose their paintings. His hypothesis was that Vermeer used the camera obscura, a darkened room with an aperture fitted with a lens through which light could enter to form an outside image on the opposite wall inside.
Tim’s Vermeer is not only a document of Vermeer, but also of Tim Jenison a man driven by an obsession. How could Vermeer, a man with apparently no formal training, achieve his creations? The question puzzles Jenison who has no academic foundation either. He hypothesizes that Vermeer utilized a dental sized mirror apparatus in addition to the camera obscura to create his works of art. He then proceeds to reconstruct the actual room depicted in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” building a chair, harpsichord, stained glass windows, and floor tile. He even gets his own daughter to stand in for the female subject.
This is the study of how a non-artist could construct a masterpiece. For most of the film we watch as Tim attempts to copy the painting. His pursuit occurs over several months. Only a very rich man with deep pockets could possibly endeavor such a colossal undertaking of time and money. At times the experiment is almost like watching paint dry, and the chronicle even acknowledges this. Yet the results are astonishing nevertheless. One might suggest that his findings negate Vermeer’s accomplishments. I found quite the opposite. Assuming this is how Vermeer worked, it re-enforces how difficult it was to create his compositions. Tim’s Vermeer is something I’d recommend to anyone with an appreciation for Baroque painting. It probably plays more like a special on public television than as a theatrical movie, but as far as this art history buff is concerned, I was transfixed.
Note: Tim’s Vermeer made the 2014 Documentary Feature shortlist of 15 films, but it did not secure an Oscar nomination.