Realistic painting reached its golden age with the 17th century "Dutch Masters," painters whose mastery of detail and recreation of faces and light were unmatched until the advent of photography hundreds of years later.
But what if they had help? What if the technology of the day gave them shortcuts to perfectly rendering colors, scale and detail onto canvas?
Tim Jenison, a rich inventor of video gadgets and lifelong self-taught tinkerer, read a book by modern artist David Hockney, "Secret Knowledge," which suggested they "cheated." Jenison went to the trouble of testing Hockney's theory, back-engineering 17th century-style technology to do it. He figured out a way to paint his own Vermeer. And since Jenison is pals with the media-savvy illusionists Penn & Teller, his effort is documented for "Tim's Vermeer," a fascinating documentary experiment in fathoming the heretofore "unfathomable" genius of Johannes Vermeer.
Jenison was struck by the technical "accuracy" of the paintings of the man who left some 35 masterpieces despite being relatively unheralded in his own lifetime.
Jenison, working from Hockney's suggestion, delved into the Delft master's access to mirrors, lenses and that new image-reflecting device of Vermeer's age - the camera obscura. He came up with a way Vermeer might have painted. And despite having no art training at all, Jenison resolved to replicate Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" by recreating the room where Vermeer did most of his painting, from the light conditions down to the furniture, ornate Persian rug, the clothing, filigreed musical instruments and models used in that painting.
It took him years.
"Tim's Vermeer" captures every step of the process - visiting The Netherlands, ducking into London's Buckingham Palace to see the original "Music Lesson," Tim's failed experiments and refinements, his demonstrations to Hockney and others who believe, as he does, that gadgets were used to "cheat" and paint so accurately.
But here's the rub. The movie lacks that thing that Penn & Teller have built their latter careers on - skepticism. They seem reluctant to track down an artist or art historian who asks some fairly obvious questions that might puncture Tim's experiment and Hockney and "Vermeer's Camera" author Philip Steadman's theories.
"Tim's Vermeer" doesn't settle the argument, but it feeds that theory that "unfathomable genius" sometimes can be fathomed.