Vermeer on Video

In addition to the many recent books, articles, and exhibition catalogues converging on the life and art of Johannes Vermeer, various video productions merit special mention. Vermeer was perhaps the most cinematic of all painters, with his mise-en-scène presentations perfectly toned in modern optical images. These videos showcase his art with appropriate cinematic force while providing interesting commentary..

Tim's Vermeer - 2013

Tim Jenison
Tim Jenison

Director: Penn Jillette
ProducerS: Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler
Principal Cast: Penn Jillette, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
Cinematographer: Shane F. Kelly
Editor: Patrick Sheffield
Music: Conrad Pope
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Canadian Dist.: Mongrel Media
Release date; 2013
Duration: 80 minutes
Production website:

In Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor and giant of video and post-production software for home computers,  (Video Toaster, LightWave, TriCaster) attempts to solve one of the mysteries in European art: How did the seventeenth- century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer  manage to paint so realistically - 150 years before the invention of photography?

In the search of an answer, Jenison began by working off of the theories set forth in David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, both of which allege that Vermeer  employed an optical device, the camera obscura, as an aid to his painting. Fascinated by the theories of Hockney and Steadman (both outsiders to the art history enclave), Jenison built his own camera obscura but found something was amiss. He immediately came to suspect that not only had Vermeer used some sort of optical device to trace the drawing of his motif onto his canvas (as Steadman had proved) but must have used it to register the colors and tonal values of his paintings, which have been long admired for their uncanny precision, apparently out of reach of his contemporaries.

While viewing in person Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, perhaps the artist’s most “optically based” work,  Jenison, a video engineer well versed in analyzing images scientifically, became firmly convinced that the work presents optical information that cannot be gathered by retinal observation. Pondering how Vermeer could have achieved such results, he invented—the idea came to him as he was relaxing in a bath tub—a simple, easy-to-use optical device, whose technology was easily within the reach of the seventeenth-century artist, and painstakingly taught himself to paint with it. The mirror of Jenison's device reflects an object in such a way that a painter can duplicate not only an object's principal contours on canvas but its colors and tonal values. Putting his theory to the ultimate test, Jenison built a perfectly  scaled "set" of The Music Lesson in a San Antonio studio and “repainted” Vermeer’s The Music Lesson from it using his device. After various false starts, Jenison   learned how to handle the device with greater efficacy, how to hand grind paint and how to domesticate paint and brush, an entirely new experience for the digital engineer. He  employed seven months to complete the work, which he claims is easily accurate enough to uphold his hypothesis.

Although Jenison admits that there is no historical evidence that might prove his hypothesis, but he believes if his method for transferring form, color and tone form with a mechanical device to a canvas were used by Vermeer, a chapter of art history would have to be revised.

Jenison's friends, the  illusionists and professional debunkers Penn & Teller, united with him to fully document his years- long investigation into the mysterious methods of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. The movie includes commentary from Jillett, Hockney and Steadman. Speaking of the film, Hockney said, "It might disturb quite a lot of people," since it forces you to question everything that you thought you knew about great art and the people responsible for it. But, as Jillette points out, it doesn't argue that they weren't geniuses; it just shows that they were fathomable geniuses, rather than unfathomable ones.

blog article:
Essential Vermeer Time post with debate (with 500+ comments)

video interviews:
Click here to view a YouTube interview with Jenison and hear his ideas on Vermeer at 34:35 minutes into the video. Another YouTube interview with Jenison,

The Guardian - "DIY Vermeer documentary utterly misses the point about old masters
Tim Jenison tried for a whole year to recreate a Vermeer painting – and all he got was a pedantic imitation
"-Jonathan Jones

Variety - “Penn and Teller’s uncanny crowdpleaser begs the question, is it still a masterpiece if an amateur could do it?” - Peter Debruge

Tim's Vermeer - YouTube trailer

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure at the National Gallery, London - 2013

Vermeer film

Production: Seventh Art Productions & Phil Grabsky Films
Directors: Phil Grabsky and Ben  Harding
Film editor: Tom Thistlethwaite
Narrator: Tim Marlow
Commentators: Tracey Chevalier, Walter Liedtke, Taco Dibbits and others
Approximate run time: 85 minutes
Release date: October 2013

Billed as a revolutionary approach to experiencing traditional art,  Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure at the National Gallery, London  is one of Exhibition on Screen’s films about, Johannes Vermeer, one of the world’s foremost and beloved artists.

The narrator, Tim Marlow—writer, broadcaster and art historian noted principally for the program Marlow On Style—accompanies viewers behind the scenes the London exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure to tell the entire story of Vermeer’s life. In doing so, many other of the artist’s captivating works  are captured in HD detail on film for the first time. Among various guests,  Marlow interviews Tracy Chevalier, the author of the best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fictional novel exploring the woman behind the celebrated painting of the same name. Others interviewed ponder what Vermeer’s paintings say about the role of music in the culture of his day. Eschewing speculations about Johannes Vermeer’s use of optical devices to make his radiant paintings, the film delves into the role of music and musical instruments in his artworks and those of many contemporaries in the Dutch Golden Age.

Vermeer film
Filming Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure at the National Gallery, London

Tim Marlow comments, “I think that standing face-to-face with some of the greatest works of art ever made is one of the most powerful experiences in life. Exhibition on Screen  gives us the opportunity to convey something of this power in a cinematic format which brings the viewer as close to the real thing as possible. Sometimes, the camera reveals even more than the naked eye ...”

Vermeer and Music was filmed in London, New York, where audiences are offered the first large screen images from the new Vermeer room at the Metropolitan Museum of where all five of their Vermeers hang together for the first time,  and Washington, where four more works by Vermeer hang.  Back in Europe, the film visits Amsterdam and then The Hague & Delft to explore these masterpieces such as the iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The film was made by the arts documentary maker Phil Grabsky, who has launched a project to connect major exhibitions from across the world to a wider public. According to Grabsky, “So many people simply would never have a chance to see  these exhibitions - nor, often, these paintings in such detail nor these artists’ biographies in such an accessible and engaging way. I want to encourage people to go to galleries but if you live thousands of miles away or indeed are elderly, infirm or simply can’t get child-care, then people are delighted with what we are doing.”

Views on Vermeer: 12 Short Stories - 2009

Vews on Ver,eer: Twelve Short Stories

Director: Hans Pool
Cinematography: Hans Pool
Screenplay: Koos de Wilt
Editing: Maaik Krijgsman
Sound: Jan Wouter Stam
Production: Martin Lagestee for Lagestee Film BV
Involved TV Channel: AVRO
Duration:52 minutes
Format: Color HD

Views on Vermeer is a documentary devoted to the art Johannes Vermeer. Over the course of 12 chapters, four contemporary photographers, three artists, three writers, two curators, an architect, an art dealer and an art historian discuss their admiration for his work. Among them is Tracy Chevalier, author of the historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (the film version of which was directed by Peter Webber); American photojournalist Steve McCurry, who shot the famous Afghan Girl portrait; American artist Chuck Close; and the Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf.

Each chapter focuses on a particular quality of Vermeer's work, helping the audience to look upon it with new eyes: from the way he painted bricks to the hidden political subject matter, by way of the tableaux he chose to depict. Views on Vermeer also explores the probability that he used a camera obscura when painting. The Vermeer aficionados are filmed in their own natural habitat with their own work or that of the painter's close at hand, and accompanied by their "own" musical theme. Vermeer comes into relief as a direct precursor of photography and cinema, as well as a continuing and important inspiration for contemporary fine arts.

interviews with:

  • Geoffrey Batchen - art historian
  • Alain de Botton - writer/philosopher
  • Chuck Close - artist
  • Philip-Lorca di Corcia - photographer
  • Tracy Chevalier - writer
  • Steve McCurry - photographer
  • Tom Hunter - artist
  • Jonathan Janson - painter/ author of Essential Vermeer
  • Thomas Kaplan - art collector
  • Walter Liedtke - art historian
  • Joel Meterowitx - photographer
  • Otto Naumann - art dealer
  • Erwin Olaf - photographer
  • Philip Steadman - architect
  • Peter Webber - film director
  • Lawrence Weschler - writer
  • Arthur K. Wheelock - art historian


  • “VIEWS ON VERMEER provides thought provoking viewing for both the general and academic audience, and offers a gentle, comfortable ‘exercise of the brain’ that sparks a desire for more contemplation and discussion.”
    Educational Media Reviews Online, February 2012
  •  “Much of the film is quite marvelous: relaxed yet lively, modest but confident. It’s like a series of bracing conversations about an endlessly interesting subject.”
    Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe
  • “VIEWS ON VERMEER is a delightful, impressionistic meditation on the many ways the elusive and allusive Vermeer continues to inform, inspire and provoke the contemporary imagination.” - The Globe and Mail

See more at:

Vermeer - Private Life of a Masterpiece (BBC Documentary) - 2005

The Private Life of Vermeer

Screenwriter: John Bush Director
Director: Lucie Donahue
Producer: Mick Gold Director
Executive Producer: Jeremy Bugler
Screenwriter: Russell T. Davies
Voice: Samuel West
Duration:50 minutes
Format: Color HD

The Private Life of a Masterpiece was a BBC arts documentary series which told the stories behind great works of art; 29 episodes of the series were broadcast on BBC Two, commencing in 2001 and ending in 2010. It initially ran for five seasons from 2001 to 2006, for a total of 22 episodes; each episode was 50 minutes long.  A further seven episodes were broadcast between 2006 and 2010.

The Private Life of Vermeer traces the afterlife of artist's mid-career master piece, The Art of Painting. it is highly likely that Vermeer created the elaborate composition as a sort of showcase painting which would impress potential clients and at the same time provide a testimony to the high ethical stature of the painter.  It would appear that Vermeer's wife, Catharina Bolnes, went to great lengths to conserve her husband’s masterpiece from creditors after the untimely death of the artist. The Art of Painting later proved the favorite of Adolf Hitler, who bought it over the head of a rival buyer, Field Marshall Herman Goering. After WWII, the American army was rescued the precious work from the Alt Aussee salt mine in Austria where  Hitler had stored it for safe keeping. The Americans presented the painting to the Austrian Government in 1946, and after lengthy legal discussions regarding its ownership,  it now the property of the State of Austria.

Vermeer - PrivateLife of a Masterpiece - YouTube

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring - (2004)

Actors: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Judy Parfitt, Cillian Murphy
Directors: Peter Webber
Writers: Tracy Chevalier (novel), Olivia Hetreed (screenplay)
Producers: Anand Tucker, Andy Paterson, Anna Campeau, Bob Bellion, Cameron McCracken
Run Time: 100 minutes

The subject of one of Johannes Vermeer's most enduring portraits becomes the focus of this biographical period piece from director Peter Webber. Girl With a Pearl Earring is told from the point of view of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a teenaged girl who leaves her family's care in the country to become a servant for the Vermeer household in the comparatively bustling, canal-laden burgh of Delft. When she arrives, she finds herself at the low end of the servant totem pole, until she's allowed to clean "the master's" painting quarters. There, she catches the eye of the taciturn, reclusive Vermeer (Colin Firth), and over a period of time, he begins to craft her portrait. Of course, this does little to further his relationship with his jealous, pregnant wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), or with his most vocal benefactor, van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who often dictates what portraits Vermeer should paint. Meanwhile, Griet navigates a sweet, tentative relationship with a peasant boy her age (Cillian Murphy).

—Michael Hastings, Rovi

Girl With a Pearl Earring had its North American premiere at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival.

The Madness of Vermeer - 2002

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Andrew Graham-Dixon

Production: BBC Two
Presenter: Andrew Graham-Dixon
Producer:  Roger Parsons
Duration: 60 minutes

Secret Lives of the Artists is a British documentary series which forms part of the BBC Two's "Imagination" art strand, in which art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon sets out to investigate the "secret lives" of three artists: Constable, Vermeer and Caravaggio.

"Looking for Vermeer is a pastime bordering on obsession," presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon comments. "Madness is the last thing associated with Vermeer’s work, but I’m interested in the passions that run beneath the calm waters of his art." In fact, according to Graham-Dixon, recent archival research reveals a reality far removed from the idealized settings of Vermeer’s paintings, which portray a life of peace and domestic bliss.

Born to Protestant parents in Delft in 1632, Vermeer’s family life was anything but peaceful: his grandmother ran an illegal lottery and often ran into trouble with the police; and his grandfather was imprisoned for counterfeiting coins. His wife’s relatives – a well-to-do Catholic family – also had their share of difficulties. Records show that Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins, was often beaten by her husband and that the family finally split up acrimoniously.

Against this backdrop, it becomes easier to understand why Vermeer chose to capture moments of serenity in his paintings.

Vermeer achieved some success as a painter during his lifetime, becoming the head of the Saint Luke’s Guild in 1662. Ten years later, in 1672, his fortunes were to change with the invasion of Holland by the French army. As a defense, the Dutch decided to flood their own land, which destroyed the homes rented out by Vermeer’s mother-in-law. Their family income plummeted and the art market nose-dived. A year later, Vermeer’s patron died.

His wife’s relatives – a well-to-do Catholic family – also had their share of difficulties. Records show that Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins, was often beaten by her husband and that the family finally split up acrimoniously.

Set adrift from a regular supply of money, Vermeer descended into debt and despair and even cheated his mother-in-law out of some cash. He died penniless in 1675, aged 43.

The Madness of Vermeer - YouTube

Love, Light and Silence - 2000

reviewed by Jon Boone - August 6, 2003


Director/Producer: Michael Gill
Producing Agency: RM Arts; London Weekend Television; Malone Gill
Format: Color, NTSC
Studio: Homevision
VHS Release Date: June 13, 2000
Run Time: 50 minutes

Of the two the most visually compelling is Light, Love, and Silence (RM Arts), written, produced and directed by Michael Gill in time for the 1995–1996 Washington-The Hague exhibition. Here Vermeer’s paintings are presented in vibrant color and convincing depth. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Jørgen Wadum provide excellent insights as they examine such works as The Milkmaid, View of Delft, The Little Street, and the Girl with a Pearl Earring, while the camera illustrates their remarks with breathtaking images. Wheelock gives a wonderful coda to the video with a brief discussion about the merits of one of Vermeer’s late works, The Guitar Player. Other experts contribute telling details about Dutch history, the camera obscura, and the work of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Vermeer’s near neighbor. Using The Music Lesson, Wadum explains how Vermeer augmented his perspective scheme with pins and strings stretched from the central vanishing point of the painting.

Several charmingly erudite discussions ensue between the British dramaturge, Jonathon Miller, and the art/intellectual historian, Svetlana Alpers, excellent bridges connecting and helping focus the many elements of the production. Alpers talks about the importance of maps to the Dutch culture while Miller probes some of the psychological implications of Vermeer’s studies. Their banter exemplifies an enlightened conviviality worthy of the master, made even more meaningful because of the way the camera cuts away to show relevant images of the paintings under discussion.

Edited and narrated by Melvyn Bragg, the production maintains a kinetic quality during its 52 minutes, always on the move, each scene gradually poised to flow naturally into the next. One can’t emphasize enough how beautiful and vivid the paintings appear – much more so than any photographic reproduction. These images alone more than justify the modest cost of the video. The narrative is resolute and usually clear, with only one questionable comment: In a discussion about the Dutch desire for privacy, Bragg recounts how a French dignitary (the Baron de Monconys) had visited Vermeer’s studio to see some of the artist’s paintings, only to be informed there were none to see, when in fact "he had a roomful next door." This last statement seems in error, for while Vermeer’s patron (Pieter van Ruijven) doubtless had a roomful of the artist’s paintings at the time of the incident (1663), his house was not in Vermeer’s immediate neighborhood.

Vermeer, Master of Light - 2000

reviewed by Jon Boone - August 6, 2003


Narrator: Meryl Streep
Director: Joseph Krakora
Format: Color, NTSC
Language: English
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Microcinema International
DVD Release Date: January 1, 2008
Run Time: 57 minutes

Light, Love, and Silence belongs in every art lover’s library to be enjoyed for itself and to complement other, more traditional sources of information.

It is also a fitting prelude to the video which the National Gallery of Art in Washington released last year (2002): Vermeer, Master of Light, narrated by Mary Streep and directed by Joseph J. Krakora. Vermeer, Master of Light opens to the peeling carillons of the New Church at dawn over Delft as the camera pans scenes of the city given form by the spreading light. Streep’s familiar voice moderates the commentary interspersed throughout the 57 minute production. As the curator of Northern Baroque Art at the National Gallery, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. anchors the expert analysis, while the museum’s senior consultant for conservation, David Bull, highlights the importance of conservation/restoration methods and techniques as tools for upholding Vermeer’s artistic intentions. Harvard’s venerable Seymour Slive rounds out this pundit trio, probing the special qualities of Vermeer’s oeuvre. Together the scholars, using sophisticated computer enhancements, examine a number of the artist’s works in detail, reviewing Vermeer’s painting techniques and compositions, then demonstrating how particular paintings were crafted.

Wheelock is splendid as he talks about the Woman Holding a Balance, the Woman in Blue Reading, A Lady Writing. One of the delights of the video is to see Wheelock actually holding the unframed original of the Girl with the Red Hat. Streep’s narratives on The Music Lesson and the Girl with the Red Hat form the centerpiece of this production. Here Vermeer’s artistry is investigated in a step-by-step account of each painting in ways which allow the viewer to understand at least some of Vermeer’s expressive accomplishments. This is art history at its best, marred only by a rather misinformed attempt in The Music Lesson to explain background shadows in the painting as the consequence of artistic license rather than a rather straightforward depiction of the actual shadows created by north light from the windows.


This video is suffused with a reverential tone, perhaps too much so. Slive’s remarks in particular seem defensive as he clearly seeks to protect his own special version of Vermeer. In a rather considered effort to disparage the idea that Vermeer relied heavily upon the camera obscura, even to the point of projecting scenes he orchestrated in the camera lens directly onto his canvas, Slive plangently argues that Vermeer "is not an ape of nature." He points to the "missing" left easel leg in The Art of Painting and the "great vault" of sky in the View of Delft as examples of Vermeer’s independence from what could be seen through a camera obscura. He infers from the artist’s paintings that "Vermeer is a man of great dignity."

But the research of people like Philip Steadman cannot be so easily dismissed. For at least six of Vermeer’s paintings, Steadman has demonstrated that the master did in fact trace what he saw projected through the camera’s lens, certainly to establish the basic compositional template as well as the essential tonal grid. However, no one, Steadman least of all, has suggested that Vermeer did not emend what he saw in front of him in pursuit of artistic expressiveness. The clouds, the shadows in the harbor, and above all the lighting schema throughout the city in the View of Delft were definitely created for artistic effect; but they appear nonetheless forged from the foundation seen in his camera. The "missing" easel leg in The Art of Painting, moreover, is not really missing; it is hidden behind the artist’s left leg and his stool.

Vermeer may have indeed been dignified, but it is unlikely he was stuffy. As the son of an innkeeper/tavern owner who himself doubtless helped his mother run the tavern throughout much of his adult life and who was married at twenty, fathering fifteen children in twenty-two years of marriage, it is difficult to believe Vermeer was a strait-laced gentleman. The man who likely painted himself in such a bawdy pose in The Procuress; who, as Walter Liedtke has noted, painted The Milkmaid with suggestive innuendo; who gave the world the Officer and Laughing Girl, The Glass of Wine, The Girl with the Wineglass, and the Girl with a Pearl Earring; who, in The Art of Painting, presented an allegory of the artist with drooping drawers and a manuscript hand fondling his backside – this was a man whose art transcends moral pigeonholing. Like Shakespeare, Vermeer’s sensibility is richly protean, malleable, and complex.

With notable exceptions, there was a general lack of vivacity in this film, at least by contrast with the earlier video. View of Delft had a distinct yellowish tinge, as did the Woman in Blue Reading, while the close-ups of the Girl with the Red Hat made the painting appear flat and listless. Vermeer, Master of Light would have benefited from the camera work which brought Light, Love, and Silence to life.

These quibbles aside, the National Gallery production is a desideratum for anyone interested in art and the creative process. It is an expressive companion to Michael Gill’s video; but it also achieves very ambitious goals for itself. Wheelock’s analysis, along with Bull’s clarifying comments – and even Slive’s passionate admiration – shed considerable light on Vermeer’s genius.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. is clearly the guiding intelligence behind both these extraordinary offerings. For nearly three decades, this scholar has perhaps done more than any other to bring Vermeer and his art to the attention of the world. His lectures and writings, his curatorial skills, including the incredible exhibit in 1995, and his exhibition catalogues have reached and influenced millions of people, enlarging their knowledge of Vermeer in particular and the arts generally. With these videos, we continue to reap the generous harvest he sows.