Johannes Vermeer was a 17th Century painter who gained worldwide acclaim through artwork including ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, ‘The Milkmaid’ and ‘View of Delft’. One of these incredible pieces ‘The Music Lesson’, is owned by the Queen and hangs on the walls of Buckingham Palace as part of her Royal Collection. It shows two people standing beside a virginal – a musical instrument part of the harpsichord piano family. This painting was noted for its incredible realism, like all Vermeer’s work, and the artist’s ability to capture perspective and photo-like detail. Many who stare at the piece note the rich, incredibly detailed tapestry-like rug strewed across a table with a white jug atop of it, an elegant blue chair and a cello on the floor. This fine attention to detail made Vermeer one of the most highly respected artists of history. But one man, Tim Jenison, believes there could have been a clever hack and engineering technique that explains his once in a lifetime talent.
Remarkably, Mr Jenison, from the US, first believed he had cracked the secrets behind Vermeer’s ability to achieve such hyper-realistic details while he was in the bath.
From there he embarked upon a five-year adventure to prove his theory correct by recreating one of the German artist’s most famous pieces.
This journey was directed by one-half of famous illusionist duo Penn and Teller, real name Raymond Teller, in the 2013 documentary ‘Tim’s Vermeer’.
During the film, protagonist Tim revealed he had no artistic talent but planned to recreate one of Vermeer’s most famous pieces.
He explained: “Sometimes when I’m trying to get to sleep, all I can think about is trying to paint a Vermeer, who some consider the greatest painter of all time.
“The face of it seems almost impossible because I’m not a painter. I’m a computer graphics guy and we use technology to make realistic beautiful images.”
Tim believes there could be an interesting engineering trick behind Vermeer’s beautiful works of art.
Using the technique of ‘camera obscura’, Tim felt that cleverly angled mirrors could help to project scenes directly onto an artist’s canvas.
While looking at Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’, Tim added: “I’m looking at this image and I see something that looks like it comes out of a video camera, this fall-off of light is something that an artist really cannot see.
“There must be a way to actually get the colours accurate with mechanical means.”
The eureka moment, where he believed to have solved the mystery of Vermeer’s talent, allegedly came to Tim while he was in the bath, Vanity Fair reported in 2013.
“So I’m going to construct a replica of the exact room where Vermeer painted – the harpsichord, the Spanish chair, the rug.”
Tim replicated the scene for the oil painting ‘The Music Lesson’, real name ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman’, which was produced between 1662 and 1665.
After 130 days of agonising work, in which he even had to learn how to hold and use a paintbrush, his strokes showed a near-perfect replica of that famous work of art.
In a touching tribute to the influence of Vermeer, the documentary director described an important thing he learned from “the world of art”.
He said: “There are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings – there was some guy who could walk up and do that.
“But art is work like anything else — concentration, physical pain.”
The magician and illusionist explained that the great misconception of the public is the belief that art “magically sprung like a miracle on the wall”.
The reality, he claimed, was far different: “But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.”
Mr Teller believed that to consider Vermeer “as ‘a god’ makes him “a discouraging bore” and that there are greater descriptors.
He added: “If you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: ‘Now he can inspire.’”