Penn and Teller film “Tim’s Vermeer.”

Courtesy Photo

American illusionists and entertainers Penn and Teller bring us this fascinating and thoughtful story on how, perhaps, 17th Century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, was able to produce paintings with a nearly photographic quality.  The mystery surrounding Vermeer’s lucid oil paintings has spawned theories for over 350 years, including a 2001 book from British artist David Hockney entitled “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”.  Hockney believed that Vermeer’s uniquely rich Renaissance period art was the result of optics, or a “camera obscura”.  His premise was that Vermeer must have developed a technique using a lens to compliment his artistic talent--even before the camera had been invented.

To prove, or disprove, Hockney’s theory, American inventor Tim Jenison embarks on this documentary film journey starting six years ago.  

“Tim’s Vermeer” reflects a startling and educational look at not only those years since 2008, but also shines as an art history lesson all the way back to Vermeer’s painting days in 1665 Holland.  Tim’s trial and error using his expertise in the visual effects profession, while trying to replicate Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” painting, leaves us with the deep sense of Jenison’s ingenuity, dedication and sharp wit. 

“Tim’s Vermeer” offers a splendid, jaw-dropping look into art paintings through forensic clues; but it doesn’t stop there.  The film also incorporates some of the finest in Americanism, symbolized by our culture’s innovative spirit.  Tim Jenison’s continual tinkering with gadgets and light while refusing to quit until he solved the mystery of Vermeer’s work is richly entertaining.  This movie may be mostly about art and science, but it also pays tribute to the history, math and technology disciplines.  

I grade movies on my overall experience and reaction to a film.  Those stories that educate me, intrigue my mind, spark the imagination, or make me want to immediately talk about the film leaving the theater--always earn my highest marks.   

“Tim’s Vermeer” meets all of those traits and many more.  It may have been a Dutch who inspired art through the help of a lens; but it was an American who broke the code on the 350 year-old mystery of how Vermeer did it.  This spectacular documentary will leave you better off for seeing it and more appreciative of the genius behind the art--and the technology.  

Grade: A

(Editor’s Note: Patrick King is a resident of Oro Valley and a freelance writer.  You may contact him at

(1) comment


Watch out! Tim's Vermeer is entertainment not a documentary. Don't forget it has been produced by illusionists, so if you hope to find out what Jension really did in his 're-creation' you will be disappointed.

In any event Jension has taken no account of the actual scientific and historical evidence of the construction of Vermeer's painting, which was made in stages and distinct layers.

To see a way projections from a camera obscura can be transferred to a canvas using the materials of the seventeenth century, go to:

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