Adoration and Light Skepticism for "Tim's Vermeer"

First, a review. Once you decide to watch the movie, leave this blog and come back when you’ve seen it.

Tim’s Vermeer is better the less you know about it. In an inverted 20-questions format, here you go. It’s a documentary. It’s about art. It’s also about forgery and obsession. There’s a money shot early on which proves the concept and makes you wonder if the bigger project is possible.

Tim’s Vermeer feels like it should be a movie by cranks - and with Teller directing and Penn narrating, I feared the worst. But credentials are established early on, and when credentials can’t be produced, the results speak for themselves. The process that Tim goes through had me shouting “fuck” at my TV a lot (this shouldn’t be a theme of my movie watching, but it is). Tim’s technique is startling and raises a whodunnit than can never be answered – were great artists geniuses ahead of their time, or were they geniuses of a different sort who used all the tools at their disposal?

The film gets at one of my favorite topics: the confluence of art, forgery, talent, and headspace. It stands among greats like the Orson Welles film essay “F for Fake” and the note-for-note remake of the Miles Davis jazz classic “Kind of Blue”. The technique here is far above forgery - Tim is motivated by Vermeer, but he doesn’t want a cheap copy. He wants a Vermeer. He wants Vermeer.

I don’t have to offer criticism, and don’t have much to give. But Tim’s Vermeer could’ve used more people. The only ones interviewed are those who agree with Tim’s theory and appreciate his work. The movie could’ve secured its status as an all-time classic if it converted a doubter into a believer, in the way that Ratatouille does.

Right now, it’s at the bottom of my top 50 of all time. I don’t feel great about that because I think a lot of the magic would be lost on a second viewing. This is tempered by the joy, wonder, and astonishment of seeing a modern renaissance man like Tim do whatever it takes to become like the old masters.

I can really, really understand how you would doubt that [Tim’s Vermeer]. … I don’t think that’s [unreasonable] to believe that. … Not trusting Penn & Teller is a good idea.

- Penn Jillette, Penn’s Sunday School

I’m now a little obsessed with Tim’s Vermeer. I watched it last night and I’ve spent hours poring over everything I could find about it. As Penn & Teller frequently note when discussing this film, people are worried it’s a hoax because Penn & Teller have built a career not just on magic, but on fooling people outside traditional stage magic.

Tim’s diagram of his apparatus.

Tim’s diagram of his apparatus.

Penn & Teller are famous skeptics, and Tim Jenison is a very rational engineer. The most troubling thing about this process is that 3 rational people haven’t provided some basic evidence that would make it much more believable. There’s some light sleight-of-hand too. Nothing out of the ordinary for a documentary, but they make claims like “none of Vermeer’s contemporaries painted like him” which people have taken issue with. On the flip side, people were crying “hoax” upon its release, and some of their questions have since been answered. Penn, Teller, and Tim seem very open to scrutiny. This gives me hope.

I think it’s plausible that Tim re-created The Music Lesson in the manner described in the film. The basic science seems to have been replicated enough to be irrefutable. But can it be used to make an advanced-looking piece of art? All the videos and pictures I could find, outside of those produced by Tim, lead to mediocre results, and the practitioners complain of boredom and the effort required. Tim has demonstrated a parlor trick. He has not shown that parlor trick works for the amazing result in the film. There is room for doubt, especially considering that even my most basic request (a time lapse) does not seem to exist. I’m not calling out anyone; I just love this film and want to shout it from the rooftops without later being made into a fool.

I would like to see some artifacts from this process. We are in a global pandemic, so I will patiently await the results.

These items should be produced

Time lapse of Tim at work replicating The Music Lesson

We don’t show you everything about how we made this painting, because you’d be bored spitless. …

We’re not showing you everything. We’re not telling you the truth. We’re telling you only a portion of the truth. But there’s a big truth in that too.

- Teller, DP/30: Teller talks Tim’s Vermeer, 26m

The time lapse is the smoking gun. Everything else I’m wondering is interesting, but not mandatory. The whole theory of the process rests on this time lapse. I understand that there may be significant effort required to make a time lapse of the entire process. But, multiple interviews with Penn & Teller confirm that 3-9 cameras were filming all day, every day. We are owed, at least, a time lapse of one day of Tim doing complicated work. The male model being forced to hold still would be an interesting all-day timelapse. (The woman is Tim’s daughter and more likely to be a confederate). Show that, with a clear shot of Tim painting and the live scene, in a time lapse of the whole day. Use as many camera feeds as possible. The rug and the pattern on the virginal are good candidates, but I think live models would be best.

The alternate scenes on the Blu-Ray seem promising, but I don’t have the disc yet to check. Especially notable are these two:

  • ‘Painting the First Live Model’ (34 ½ min.)
  • ‘Painting Video Log’ (40 min.)

Info on Tim Jenison’s “Claire With A Pearl Earring”

There is supposedly a 10m film about Tim’s follow-up project, “Claire With A Pearl Earring” or “Claire with the Pearl Earring”, depending on the site. It has been shopped around at least once in a kind of lecture tour alongside Tim’s Vermeer. There is almost nothing online on the topic. And what’s up with the “one-day showing” of the painting?

Info on Tim’s later projects

As of the 2015 SFI lecture (below), Tim was living in Delft to do another Vermeer. What happened? Was this “Claire With A Pearl Earring”? If not, what was he up to? Can we see it? Has Tim done anything else?

Videos and evidence of art exhibit

The art exhibit inspired by Tim’s Vermeer supposedly ran for 3+ years and all we get is a few pictures, some tweets, and a companion book.

Supposedly, professional artists were brought in to do stunning paintings like Tim did. Did any of them take progress pictures? Did any of them post or talk about it at all? Is there a time lapse? This is a museum, were there not even security cameras that could’ve recorded them?

MoNA receives 1.3 million visitors a year.

I hope my questions can be addressed by Tim or his associates.

The Music Lesson, Woman Seated at a Virginal (left) vs. Tim’s Verneer (right). Higest res of Tim’s Verneer I could find. You can get 2x the size of Verneer’s Verneer on Wikipedia.

The Music Lesson, Woman Seated at a Virginal (left) vs. Tim’s Verneer (right). Higest res of Tim’s Verneer I could find. You can get 2x the size of Verneer’s Verneer on Wikipedia.

Additional Links

With my questions out of the way, I’ll also share some of my research. I didn’t mean to turn this into a Tim’s Verneer fansite, but it seems that is what I’ve done.

This is not a balanced section. I looked for anything relevant to the topic, but I admit there’s probably a subconscious wish that draws me to the Pro-Tim argument. And really, while compiling this list, the Pro-Tim evidence became more compelling. A lot of qualified people have been taken for a ride if Tim didn’t paint this. We’re also 6 years out from the film’s debut - how long does the hoax need to last?


I wish fewer of these were affiliated with Tim.

Vermeer’s Camera and Tim’s Vermeer - Prof Philip Steadman (has a big role in the film) - UCL Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources.
Tim’s Vermeer with Fine Art Connoisseur
SFI Community Lecture Tim Jenison. Highlights:

  • first 10m: more scientific details on the lenses
  • 26m: other artists who Tim thinks may have used the technique
  • 50: Discussion of the Tasmania Museum of Old and New Art installation. Apparently they filmed it and there will be a mini series? Where is this video?
  • 58: professional artists fail to reproduce colors in optical illusions.
  • 1h01: Some pro artists are faster than Tim, others are slower. “The artists' style just screams out” vs. a methodical non-artist like Tim.
  • 1h04: Vermeer clips his blacks below a dynamic range that can’t be supported by oil paint. Dynamic range of oil paint is 5-6 stops.
  • 1h06: “There’s a woman painting now” who understands the optics. Is “now painting a Vermeer. They built a beautiful Vermeer room based on Tim’s blueprint”. It’s cited as “Young Lady Standing at a Virginal”

Tim’s Vermeer…from a painter’s point of view How to use a comparator mirror. - roundup of links, techniques, and evidence Trying Tim’s Vermeer
THE POWER OF PAINT - Shortening the gap (part 2) - Roundup by an artist who seems enamored with Tim’s technique and is applying it in some sort of art education outreach program for young people.
Archived version of Penn’s Sunday School podcast, episode 125. At 1:04:15 they rebut an earlier article that rejected the basic premise of the film - that Tim’s comparator device works at all.
Tim Jenison’s mirror technique and the NeoLucida


Did Tim Paint a Vermeer? by David G. Stork, Christopher W. Tyler, and Sara J. Schechner
I am a camera, sometimes: TIM’S VERMEER
Vermeer and the Camera Obscura
Smoke and Mirrors Behind Tim’s Vermeer