Vermeer’s Dirty Little Secret

Curiosity turned into a major discovery in the art world when inventor Tim Jenison stumbled into proving that the celebrated, hyperrealistic paintings of 17th century master Johannes Vermeer were achieved not through pure genius but through the aid of the camera obscura, a device that projects a perfect image of its surroundings onto a screen:

[Jenison] traveled to Delft again and again, scouting the places where Vermeer had painted. He learned to read Dutch. He paid for translations of old Latin texts on optics and art. 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.

But still, exactly how did Vermeer do it? One day, in the bathtub, Jenison had a eureka moment:

a mirror. If the lens focused its image onto a small, angled mirror, and the mirror was placed just between the painter’s eye and the canvas, by glancing back and forth he could copy that bit of image until the color and tone precisely matched the reflected bit of reality. Five years ago, Jenison tried it out on the kitchen table. He took a black-and-white photograph and mounted it upside down, since a lens would project an image upside down. He put a round two-inch mirror on a stand between the photo and his painting surface. He immediately found that “when the color is the same, the mirror edge disappears,” and you’re through with that bit. Five hours later, he had painted a perfect duplicate of the photo, an astounding proof of concept by someone who can’t draw and had never painted a thing. Then he used his mirror trick to copy a color photo. Again, perfect. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he says.

[Illusionist and entertainer] Teller, who with Penn Jillette made a documentary of Jenison’s project, doesn’t believe it spoils the legacy of Vermeer or any artist who made use of the method:

“One of the things I learned about the world of art,” Teller says, “is there are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings—there was some guy who could walk up and do that. But art is work like anything else—concentration, physical pain. Part of the subject of this movie is that a great work of art should seem to have magically sprung like a miracle on the wall. But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.” To see Vermeer as “a god” makes him “a discouraging bore,” Teller goes on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.”