Tim's Vermeer  

by director Teller

Being a magician isn’t easy. Your occupation is to create miracles, beautifully, impenetrably, and leave a mystery behind. If you do it well, the audience feels a weird blend of pleasure and annoyance.  My friend Mike Close puts it this way: “A magician gives you the gift of a stone in your shoe.”

There is one universal secret behind every baffling magic trick: The method is unglamorous. It’s a bunch of unsightly little tricks that add up to one big one. The audience, whose goal is pleasure, is fooled because they’re looking for beauty.

One old-time magician used to do an astounding bar stunt in which he produced a substantial block of ice from under a borrowed hat. He would never perform the ice production unless he felt the circumstances were perfect.  So when he thought he might have the occasion to do the trick, he’d hang the block of ice under his coat from the armpit of his dinner jacket.  By the time he found the moment for the trick, his shirt and underwear were often soaked with ice water.  But the audience was stunned by the trick. They couldn’t conceive that anyone would go sit for hours with a cold, wet armpit for one moment of astonishment. 

When I see a painting by Vermeer, the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I feel like I’m gazing on something supernatural. I often get choked up and teary-eyed. It’s a miracle. 

Eventually, though, I start to wonder how that miracle came to be. And I wonder if it was like that block of ice, a terribly simple secret, but a little too cold and wet and so much more trouble than anybody would believe. 

Tim’s Vermeer is the story of how Tim Jenison—a gentle, inventive genius, a dad, and the head of a renowned tech company—makes just such a discovery. In his spare time Tim takes on a 350-year-old art mystery. How could Vermeer achieve his photorealistic miracles of light and tone using only his hand, his brain, an ordinary set of human eyes, and the technology available to him in the 17th Century? Tim studies, visits Holland, walks in Vermeer’s footsteps and gets an inspiration. He sees a way that Vermeer might have done it, like a magic trick, with mirrors. 

To test his hypothesis, Tim resolves to paint his own Vermeer, quite a challenge because before the start of this project, Tim had never before painted an oil painting.

To ensure that his test conditions match 17th Century Holland, Tim transforms his warehouse in San Antonio, Texas, into Vermeer’s studio. To get Vermeer’s angle of daylight Tim knocks down concrete block walls. He builds latticed windows and beamed ceilings.  He fuses his own glass and grinds his lens with his own hands. He reproduces period Dutch furniture.  He blends his own paints from the same toxic chemicals Vermeer used. He visits David Hockney for encouragement and even manages to talk his way into Buckingham Palace to study a Vermeer the Queen owns. Tim is unstoppable. 

Then he starts to paint and what he produces is astounding. Not a mystery—we see all the secrets—but a wonder nevertheless. 

And it lets us see Vermeer’s genius in a new light: As an artist. As a scientist. And as a magician who knew how to keep a secret.

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