Vermeer’s Camera Obscura


My mother recently sent me an interesting article in Vanity Fair magazine about Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s quest to prove that Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura-based device to make his photorealistic paintings. Jenison’s experiments are the subject of a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer produced and directed by the magicians Penn and Teller, which is now in limited release.




Tim Jenison, who had a career developing video editing and post-production software and hardware, endeavored to not only reproduce the apparatus he thinks Vermeer used – a camera obscura fitted with a handmade four-inch lens, a parabolic mirror and a smaller mirror to paint from – but to test his theory by painting a replica of The Music Lesson. This required building and sourcing a fully accurate set that mirrors the room in Delft, Netherlands that Vermeer depicted. The construction of the set in his San Antonio studio took over eight months and the painting took over 230 hours of work. It is worth noting that Jenison is an amateur painter, with no training prior to undertaking this project.

Jenison was inspired by earlier research that suggested that Vermeer might have used an optical device to assist in making his most famous paintings. The theories were based on analysis of the accurate depiction in Vermeer’s work of out of focus areas of the scene, the perfect reflections in a mirror and the proper display of the light values falling on the white wall in the painting The Music Lesson. These attributes of the paintings are claimed to not be possible without the assistance of an optical device, suggesting that the details Vermeer included in his work could not have been seen by the human eye alone or with the era’s understanding of the nature of light.

Other critics though are resisting these proposals, at least insomuch as they “oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art”, which Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of European paintings Walter Liedtke is quoted as saying in the Vanity Fair article. We’ll leave it to you to determine if these discoveries about how likely it was that Vermeer used new technology to create his art undermines the artistry and beauty of his work or if it strengthens his reputation as a master of the use of light.

Left, Tim Jenison, with part of the optical apparatus he created above him, at work in his San Antonio studio. Right, Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, the painting Jenison chose to re-create. From Vanity Fair article “Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?)”


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