Inventor creates replica of Vermeer painting using modified camera obscura

December 3, 2013 by Bob Yirka, weblog
The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer

( —Inventor Tim Jenison may have finally solved the mystery of how famed Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was able to create paintings that so closely resembled photographs. His five year mission to learn Vermeer's secrets has been filmed and a documentary made describing what he's learned.

Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century painter who stunned the world by suddenly appearing on the painting scene producing impressively realistic paintings, all seemingly without any training. Critics at the time suggested he "cheated" by using a device called a camera obscura, which is essentially a lens and mirror set up in a way to allow for better reference—it would be akin to painting using a photograph posted next to the canvas. The argument surfaced again in 2006 when modern painter David Hockney announced that the only way Vermeer could have painted the pictures he made, were by using some sort of mirror and lens contraption. The problem with the argument was that it couldn't explain how the lighting could have come out the way it did—a mirror/lens device would have produced an image that was upside down.

Shortly after Hockney's announcement, millionaire inventor Tim Jenison became intrigued by the argument. His background was in optics, so it seemed a natural way to pass his time investigating the possibilities. Instead of a hobby, however, it became more of an obsession. Jenison traveled to Amsterdam to see an example for himself. He claims that led to an epiphany—one so strong that he learned Dutch so he could read original texts. He learned about early paints and how to make mirrors and lenses himself. Eventually, he even faithfully recreated the room and sunlight conditions of where Vermeer sat while painting "The Music Lesson," one of his most famous pieces.

As time passed, Jenison became convinced he had an inkling of how Vermeer pulled off his trick—he'd added another mirror to his camera obscura, causing the image it created to become right side up. By positioning a lens and two mirrors just right, he found he could create what would look like a photograph, just next to the canvas, allowing for simple replication of an actual setting. Putting all that he'd learned together, Jenison created what he believes are the conditions Vermeer was working under. And to prove his point, he even created a stunning painting of his own—one that very closely resembles "The Music Lesson." He says, he's 90 percent sure he's solved the mystery. That last ten percent, he says, is there because he can't figure out how Vermeer managed to hide the knowledge of his improved camera obscura.

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More information: via VanityFair

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not rated yet Dec 03, 2013
What's the problem with painting an upside-down image?
1 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2013
What's the problem with painting an upside-down image?

It's difficult. You can't see whether you've copied it right because everything looks unfamiliar the wrong way around.

Of course Vermeer could have combined the camera obscura with simpler grid copying techniques to transfer the sketch correctly to the canvas, then flip the image around and finish painting it. Suppose you project the image on a piece of silk paper and trace the outlines, then flip the silk paper around and paint with that.
Dec 03, 2013
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not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
copying upside down works very well, as you are working in unfamiliar territory and must rely on sight rather than a gloss of "recognizable" objects. More to the point, if one examines Vermeer's work you will find that out of the existing 36 works, at least 10 have pin holes through the canvas at the exact vanishing point of the image. It is surmised that Vermeer used a string or chalk line to snap his lines of perspective into place. One must assume that he used a T-square for his verticals and horizontals. Had he attempted to use a camera obscure to determine these picture elements they would not exhibit the mechanical perspective that they do. They would have followed the distorted image caused by a lens projecting on a flat surface. to render a straight line the canvas would need to be curved parallel to the lens. The mystery of Vermeer is a bit more complex than Tim Jenison would have us believe. others have suggested that he used 2 mirrors.
not rated yet Jan 17, 2014
others have suggested that he used 2 mirrors.

Or maybe a camera lucida?

It's a device worn over a single eye that, with some practice, can project or overlay whatever is in front of a person to a canvas or paper flat in their lap. You could then place key points of the image on the canvas and use other means to connect the dots.

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