Share story

The documentary “Tim’s Vermeer” is about many things — art history, technology, painting technique, beauty — but ultimately it’s a beguiling study of fascination. (Or, some might say, obsession.) Tim Jenison, a bearded, genial fellow who modestly refers to himself as “an inventor” (he is, in fact, a key figure in the development of desktop video), has long loved the paintings of the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Fascinated by how Vermeer managed to achieve such photolike realism and light, Jenison studied the work of art historians who wondered whether the artist used a cameralike device — and determined to use such a technique to paint a “Vermeer” himself, re-creating “The Music Lesson” from a still life reconstructed in a warehouse in San Antonio.

It’s a wildly ambitious quest, and it took Jenison many years: of travel to Europe to study Vermeer’s paintings and meet with historians; of time spent learning to make furniture (a hands-on guy, Jenison wanted to be sure that his still life was completely accurate) and craft period-accurate paints; of days and weeks and months spent in that warehouse, hunched over a canvas and a simple device involving a lens and two mirrors, meticulously re-creating the painting stroke by tiny stroke.

“This project is a lot like watching paint dry,” Jenison dryly observes, mid-painting, and in the wrong hands this documentary could have had a similar effect. But Jenison has long been friends with Penn Gillette, the chatty half of the magic duo Penn & Teller, who recognized early that this project had some magic of its own. With Teller (the quiet one) directing, Gillette acts as an amiable narrator; sharing his own irrepressible enthusiasm for the project (“My friend Tim painted a Vermeer!”) and walking us smoothly through its science.

The result is pretty fascinating for us as well: an art-world mystery explored, a tribute to the hypnotic power of art, a long, ambitious journey seen to its successful end. (It’s quite moving when Jenison, normally a stoic man of science, gets choked up upon viewing his finished canvas — after 1,825 days. While it doesn’t look exactly like Vermeer’s, it’s uncannily close.) We may never know exactly how Vermeer achieved his magic, but Jenison’s experiment makes a compelling argument, without ever lessening the beauty of the art.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com