I found the documentary Tim's Vermeer to be really absorbing. Penn and Teller do a good job of putting together the fascinating narrative of their friend Tim Jenison's attempts to prove or disprove the claim that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce his paintings. Tim comes off as a likable everyman, though he's obviously extremely wealthy... and a bit obsessive. He's extremely creative, and good at working with his hands: he's got a garage/ workshop full of inventions in various stages of development, and which work with varying degrees of success. He seems like a man who likes to tinker and figure out how things work, and the controversial puzzle about Vermeer's painting methods is his latest enthusiasm.
The part of the documentary which shows Tim painting his father's portrait using a small mirror at an angle is extremely interesting. It certainly goes a long way to convince viewers that the hypothesis about Vermeer's methods is at least possible on a practical level. I was impressed by it, but found myself thinking, "It can't possibly be that easy." Besides it- I should imagine- taking some time to get used to painting from a reflection, there's also the necessity of being able to blend the paint colours and hues competently, which takes some skill and practice. I found myself skeptical that Jenison sat down and produced this picture on his first attempt. It's not that I doubt that he did it, but rather that there weren't a few crumpled canvasses from previous efforts in the trash can. Unless, of course, Tim has had some training in painting, which is certainly possible but I don't recall being mentioned. I just find it unlikely that a raw beginner could sit down and produce a picture that well done in one attempt. The process and its results, however, made me want to try it myself, to see if it actually was that easy. Whether I'll ever get around to it is another question.
Tim's rebuilding Vermeer's studio to scale is an impressive accomplishment, and a testament both to his dedication to this project and to his unlimited funds. I found myself thinking at different times during the film that it was a good thing that Jenison owns a successful tech company, because everything he does obviously requires not only a lot of time and effort, but money as well. Not only does he exactly reproduce the studio and all the decor necessary for the Music Lesson portrait, he travels to England to meet with Philip Steadman, the author of Vermeer's Camera. While there, he also gets to see the real painting The Music Lesson, which is in Queen Elizabeth's private collection at Windsor Castle. It's not as if just anyone could get in to see it; I've done the tour at Windsor, and I assure you that the painting isn't on it.
The part of the film which chronicles Tim's painting of the Vermeer reproduction in my opinion does a better job of showing the time and work involved in the process than the earlier scenes about his father's picture. You get a better sense of time passing; the work is exacting and tedious, and Tim is often tired and sometimes frustrated. This seems a bit more realistic, at least to me. The final result is impressive, and one is forced to conclude that it is certainly a distinct possibility that Vermeer employed a similar method to aid his artistic efforts.
The film Tim's Vermeer and also the book Vermeer's Camera suggest a very interesting- and creditable- method which Vermeer could possibly have used to produce his paintings. Inevitably, this leads the viewer to wonder just what this says about Vermeer's art, and more broadly, about what constitutes art. If, indeed, Vermeer employed a camera obscura to capture the images which he painted, does this make him less of an artist?
Certainly Vermeer had to master painting techniques, the fundamentals of the art, but if he wasn't doing the actual drawing himself, and was painting from a reflection, was he a real artist or a merely a competent craftperson? And does it matter? Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt a good deal of the city of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was a mathematician and scientist who used these skills to produce many great edifices. Yet I would argue that the buildings he designed- such as St Paul's Cathedral- are just as much works of art as they are works of construction.
I suppose the real question is, what constitutes art? My usual rule of thumb is that if I can do it, it probably isn't art, which is why I have no time for Jackson Pollack's splatters and dribbles. But, even if I could paint a picture using a reflected image, I couldn't do it with anywhere near the skill and beauty seen in Vermeer's work. Was he an artist or an artisan, or both? Whatever you decide, it is inarguable that Johannes Vermeer gifted us with many works of great beauty for which we can be deeply grateful.