Art, Films.

Did Vermeer do it with mirrors?

-PD-US, Google Art Project

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1665. Attrib: Google Art Project, PD-US. Click to view enlarged picture


In his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, painter David Hockney has suggested that Vermeer and other hyper-realistic painters like Caravaggio used optical projection techniques to assist in the production of their startlingly real paintings. This has been met with a good deal of skepticism in the art world, in particular because the means and tools for the technique are not forthcoming.  Enter tech inventor Tim Jenison.

Jenison, who had never painted, had read Hockney’s book on the subject and became intrigued.  Hockney, as a master painter, had noticed that in the ultra-precise paintings of certain old masters like Vermeer or Caravaggio, there were odd systematic shifts of points of view, of perspective lines that, as a painter, he found inexplicable using the tools and techniques of painting.  Exploring this, he formed a hypothesis that these painters were using lenses, mirrors and camera obscura techniques to produce their paintings.

Movie Review, Title Tim's Vermeer, Studio Sony Pictures, Rating 3.5,

Tim's Vermeer (2013)

Director: Teller

Movie Review

Jenison, being independently wealthy, was free to explore this idea, and decided to attempt to paint an accurate replica of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson using such an approach. He then spent five years researching and constructing a complete replica of the subject room and its furniture, including an inlaid harpsichord!  He also experimented with and finally built an optical apparatus he believed would allow him to become, as it were, Vermeer, using parts and techniques that were accessible to a man of Vermeer’s time and place.

Jenison ultimately produced his replica of the painting, not by copying the painting itself, but by using as his subject the replicated room, and occasionally stand-in models, in natural light, employing his optical devices and special techniques to render what he saw.  The process was filmed by magician Penn Jillette, who recently released the resulting documentary film, entitling it Tim’s Vermeer.  

It took Jenison many months of true drudgery, working excruciatingly slowly, to manfully replicate the painting.  His painting would have included the anatomically precise rendering of a gnat’s ass, if such a gnat had lit upon, say, the white vase on the table while it was being painted. The painting is a close replica of Vermeer’s, in unusually accurate detail; it is close enough to bolster Hockney’s hypothesis.  But did this method produce great art?

The art world seemed mostly to be concerned that the idea of master painters using optical devices to help them would make these painters seem less like great artists and more like master craftsmen (and perhaps not worth the millions that museums and collectors pay for their works).

Jillette suggested that, mirroring Hockney, all artists use tools, and that clever tools and methods are not sufficient to produce high art, but that it always depends on the artistic sensibility and the effective employment of those tools,  Clever tools do not diminish the art, nor do they create great artists in and of themselves. Indeed, Vermeer’s painting still looks masterful, whereas Tim’s Vermeer, while showing the tremendous detail expected of such realistic paintings, does not, at least not to my admittedly amateur eye.

-CC BY 2.0, David McSpadden

Henri Matisse, stained-glass window made with paper cut-outs. Attrib: David McSpadden, CC BY 2.0. Click to view enlarged picture


Composition, selection of color, the subtlest uses of materials, and so on, are part of the creation of a work of art.  Matisse produced striking and vivid works of art using cutout paper.  I have done the same a few times in my life, and neither I nor anyone else is clamoring for more, but I continue to find Matisse’s works stimulating, particularly his use of color. (A collection of Matisse’s cutouts are currently on display in New York’s MOMA.)

Book Briefly Noted, Title Secret Knowledge, Author David Hockney, Rating 4.0, Did Vermeer do it with mirrors?

Secret Knowledge

David Hockney

Briefly Noted

Hockney, an experienced painter, found systematic evidence in these historical paintings of Vermeer and others, of details and perspectives that cannot be viewed with a naked eye.  A painter simply looking at a subject without the device of a camera obscura would have inevitably drawn it with different sight lines and would not have included certain details that would have been undetectable.   The only paintings that Hockney found these artifacts were from paintings done in a hyper-realistic  style, and the artifacts were consistent.

Jenison demonstrated that, with great effort and a special camera obscura optical arrangement, both the hyperrealism  and the peculiar perspective could be produced with consistency and high accuracy.

The most puzzling part, and what the general art world holds to, is that there is no direct or indirect historical evidence of the use of these techniques.  No tools have been recovered, no descriptions, discussions of or allusions to the techniques can be found, like they are found for many other artistic techniques of those cultures, in surviving letters or contracts, etc.  This places the concept of optical painting techniques in the murky world of conspiracy:  If it did happen, why is there not the usual evidence?  

Were the artists who purportedly employed these techniques so fearful of being exposed that they spent great energy to hiding any evidence thereto?  This in and of itself, is very difficult to do, to train assistants who assist in these paintings, as was generally the case, and keep them and any supplier of odd tools quiet for their entire lives.  It is of course, not impossible:  The Stradivarius and Cremona violin construction techniques are lost to history, yet for many generations violin makers used these techniques to build those violins now prized for their musical qualities.  And, as Jillette pointed out, magicians have for centuries kept the secrets of illusion-making.

 Did these painters use such techniques and tools?  It seems likely to me.  Coincidence is rare in the ordinary course of events. It also seems likely that these techniques were not used exclusively, but included some skilled free painting to shape the art into its final composition.  

But without at least some evidence beyond clever and consistent deduction, beyond a successful historical re-creation of the postulated optical methods, incredulity is to be expected.

-CC BY 2.0, Ron Cogswell

David Hockney, Grand Canyon, 1998. Attrib: Ron Cogswell, CC BY 2.0. Click to view enlarged picture


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