Was Vermeer a painting genius, or did he use tech to ‘cheat?’

tim jenison johannes vermeer tims sony pictures

The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, considered to be one of the Old Masters of art, is well known for his photorealistic paintings. Although he entered a painters’ guild at age 21 during the 1600s – with no evidence of prior training – Vermeer demonstrated an understanding of lighting, highlights, blurring, tone, foreground and background – the things you see in photographs. It’s this skill that has made his art highly valuable, but also a source of controversy, as some experts have questioned whether Vermeer was truly an Old Master or employed the use of lens- and mirror-based equipment, like a camera obscura, to help him achieve his technique. In a profile by Kurt Andersen in Vanity Fair, a Texas inventor, Tim Jenison, spent years to decipher how Vermeer may have made his paintings – possibly solving the debate – and is the subject of an upcoming documentary film by magicians Penn and Teller.

Prior to his involvement, Jenison is the founder of NewTek, a company that made hardware and software for video production and post-production. He became interested in the Vermeer mystery after reading a book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters, by David Hockney, one of world’s great living artists who was one of the experts who stirred up the Vermeer controversy. As an inventor with no prior experience in art, the thought of reconstructing how Vermeer could have achieved his photorealistic paintings intrigued him, and sought out to prove/disprove the theories brought up by the likes of Hockney.

Jenison spent five years researching, which took him to the Netherlands, where Vermeer’s art are displayed and home to places Vermeer had painted. He even learned to read Dutch. Andersen wrote, “Much later, he did a computer analysis of a high-resolution scan of a Vermeer interior, and discovered ‘an exponential relationship in the light on the white wall.’ The brightness of any surface becomes exponentially less bright the farther it is from a light source – but the unaided human eye doesn’t register that. According to Jenison, the painting he digitally deconstructed shows just such a diminution from light to dark.” Jenison later realized that Vermeer might have used a mirrored device, specifically a camera obscura – the “high-tech” of that period. Trying out this technique, Jenison was able to perfectly reproduce a photograph in painting. But in order to put it to a real test – one that might answer the Vermeer question – Jenison rebuilt the exact room that was featured in the artist’s “The Music Lesson,” and reverse-engineered a lens-mirror contraption based on what Vermeer might have used.

Jenison, who is friends with Penn Jillette, told the magician about his experiment. Penn and his partner Teller became equally fascinated and documented Jenison’s work, in the film Tim’s Vermeer. After the experiment and more research, Jenison became 95-percent certain that Vermeer employed some sort of device as an aide. Many art experts still disagree and the controversy continues. Jenison’s work may have seemingly put Vermeer’s genius into question, but Andersen points out that it’s not uncommon for great artists to utilize tools.

The interesting part about Andersen’s story isn’t so much about solving the Vermeer riddle, but the details about the lengths Jenison went through. Set aside a half-hour and read more about Jenison’s work.

(Via Daring Fireball via Vanity Fair; image via Sony Pictures Classics)

Smart Home

Picture this: The Aura packs thousands of photos in a single frame (for a price)

Are you one of those people who miss the good old days of flipping through photo albums to see each and every favorite photo? If so, you might love the Aura digital photo frame. We tested the device and came away impressed.

The best PS3 games of all time

Choosing the right PlayStation 3 game can be a conundrum, especially when there are nearly 1,500 titles to choose from. Thankfully, we've rounded up the best games to have ever made it to the platform.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (November 2018)

Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be an undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Movies & TV

Out of movies to binge? Our staff picks the best flicks on Hulu right now

From classics to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'The Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘The Good Place’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.

Full frame or 4K for less than $1K? These 4 older cameras still have a lot to offer

Looking for a great camera deal? Sometimes, you might be better off buying one that's a few years -- last generation's professional models may not cost much more than today's entry-level models.

Get up close and personal with this telephoto lens for your phone

Moment is replacing its aging 60mm telephoto lens with a new 58mm tele lens, redesigned from the ground up for the latest iPhone, Pixel, and Galaxy phones. Mount it onto the phone via a case and get closer with 2x optical zoom.

Golf ball-sized Lume Cube Air is a pocketable LED for photos and video

Off-camera lighting for smartphones and GoPros just got even smaller. Meet the Lume Cube Air, a smaller portable LED light designed for photos and videos that weighs only about two ounces.

Edit portraits with A.I. and adjust focus in the new ON1 Photo RAW 2019 editor

ON1 Photo RAW 2019 now has a dedicated tab for portraits that automatically recognizes faces to help with retouching. The update also brings a new focus stacking tool, enhancements to layers, and improvements to local adjustments.

Taking shots in the dark with Night Sight, the Pixel’s newest photo feature

The Google Pixel range has always been the home of some of the mobile world's best phone cameras. That performance is now getting even better with the introduction of the low-light Night Sight mode.

Alpha Female: Sony awards five women grants to support artisan diversity

Women can face several challenges in launching a photography career -- Sony's latest initiative aims to help propel women in the industry forward. Sony recently announced the winners of the Alpha Female program.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Product Review

Fewer pixels, better camera? The Nikon Z6 shows the beauty of restraint

The Nikon Z6 is the sibling to the new mirrorless Z7 -- but for some photographers, the cheaper Z6 may be the better option. Read where the $2,000 camera beats the $3,400 one (and where it doesn’t) in our Nikon Z6 review.
Social Media

Build a wish list and shop videos with Instagram’s latest shopping update

Eyeing a product on Instagram? Now there are more ways to shop from the social network. Instagram just rolled out options to save products in a collection as users can also now shop from videos.