Vanity Fair previews the documentary Penn & Teller made about Tim Jenison who put theories about how Vermeer used a camera obscura to the test by reconstructing the devices, pigments and room of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Jenison thinks he solved the mystery: Vermeer used two additional mirrors to re-orient the camera obscura image and allow the painter to “see” the color values of the objects he was painting. At least, that’s Jenison’s theory.
Chuck Close bases paintings on photographs and uses a mechanical lift to move his enormous canvases around as he works on them. As Jenison says of the history of art, “perspective is an algorithm, a ‘device’” invented in the 15th century to paint more realistic illusions.
“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 went on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.”