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Vermeer in the movies. Top 5 films featuring the paintings of the mysterious artist from Delft

The life and work of the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer is the breeding ground for screenwriters of both feature films and documentaries. There is not much information about his life, so there is much space for imagination, not restricted to the reliable facts. Documentaries are more attracted to theories around the extraordinary photorealism of Vermeer’s paintings: some authors propose theories, others indignantly reject them.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003

The largest film project in this review is devoted to one of the most famous canvases. Hardly any of our readers never saw at least a photograph of Scarlett Johansson acting a modest peasant maid and the Vermeer’s model at the same time. Naturally, as in the case of any other Hollywood blockbuster, the filmmakers did not aim to depict the historical authenticity, especially since the movie was based on the bestseller by Tracy Chevalier with the same name. After all, there are not so many reliable facts for an hour and a half of screen time, as nothing is known about the history of the picture at all: neither the exact time of its painting, nor the personality of the girl in the picture, nor the circumstances of its creation.
A frame from Girl with a Pearl Earring
Anyway, the film would be interesting not only to art lovers. Suffice it to say that Colin Firth played the part of Vermeer, and the critics call the role of Scarlett Johansson in this film one of the most noteworthy in her career. The movie is a feast for the eyes, and it’s not about the Irish handsome Killian Murphy. You can tell, director Peter Webber (the "Hannibal Rising" movie about the childhood and adolescence of Dr. Lecter, the gourmet and maniac, is also his project) sought to give his work the features of the Dutch artist’s painting.
A frame from Girl with a Pearl Earring
Thanks to painstaking work on light, colour and composition, at some point you really start to perceive the film as the revived paintings by Vermeer. Look for the detailed analysis of what is the notorious pearl earring in fact elsewhere.

All The Vermeers In New York, 1990

In the film, With its name more suitable for an illustrated catalogue, this film quotes the paintings of the Dutch artist both as scenery and rather profound metaphors. The introduction, the culmination, and the epilogue take place against their background.

Two characters meet in the hall of the Metropolitan Museum, before the paintings of Vermeer. They are completely different, they are actually worlds apart. A Wall Street financial broker Mark (Stephen Lack) meets a French actress Anna (Emanuelle Chaulet), because she reminds him the subject of a female portrait by the Dutch artist.

The movie, which first pretends to be a romantic comedy, quickly turns into a nearly philosophical parable, where the stock market rhymes with art galleries selling works of art. This strange — perhaps, in the good sense of the word — picture makes viewer feel the dreary nostalgia for the pre-Internet era, when people recorded fateful messages on answering machines.
  • The female lead in "All The Vermeers In New York".
  • Jan Vermeer. Portrait of a Young Woman, 1660s
Since the movie is rated as an art house film, the director chose a Vermeer’s painting, which is not the most popular, to be the key point of the plot. The girl on the canvas seems to pose with the very same earring, as the subject of the more famous canvas.
The "All The Vermeers In New York" movie received favourable reports from critics, as well as awards and nominations of prestigious independent film festivals, but failed its American release without even paying back the budget spent. According to the comment of the iconic American film critic Roger Ebert, it was simply too good for the commercial market: "If 'All the Vermeers in New York' had been in French with subtitles, I would have known right away what to expect. It’s unusual to find a film this brainy in English."

Brush with Fate, 2003

We move on to another film based on a bestseller book. The novel by American writer Susan Vreeland "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" tells the story of a fictitious picture by Vermeer with the same name, which changes its owners under inevitably tragic circumstances.

The main parts in the film were performed by two outstanding ladies: Glenn Close and Ellen Burstyn. The first acts as a history teacher who invites a new art teacher from her school to show him a painting belonging to her family.

Numerous flashbacks illustrate the story of the lead character, played by Glenn Close, about the dramatic events that took place in the Netherlands at different times since the mid-17th century, which always forced owners to part with the fateful canvas (including the artist himself). The last story relates the heroine directly, or rather her father, a former Nazi functionary, and puts her before a hard moral and ethical choice.

It is noteworthy that the picture "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" was painted specifically for the film by Jonathan Janson in the style of Vermeer. Janson is the creator and author of the largest website dedicated to the work of the Dutch artist, Essential Vermeer. On one of his pages he tells in detail about his work on the canvas.

Tim's Vermeer, 2013

Americans even manage to turn a documentary into an action blockbuster. This is what happened to the film about the inventor and founder of NewTek company, Tim Jenison, who tried to paint an exact copy of Vermeer’s picture without any art education. He invoked the popular theory by the British artist David Hockney, who supposed that the sudden increase in the painters skill in the time of Vermeer was caused by the invention and application of tools such as concave mirror, which collects the picture just as well as modern camera and camera obscura.

A simple device with a mirror helped Tim to produce an oil painting, which looked nearly identical to the photographic portrait of his stepfather. Encouraged by the result, he became convinced that he was able to reproduce the Vermeer’s canvas as well, except that he would paint not from a photo, but from a natural model, identical to the original.

Jenison found and furnished a suitable room, and thus made good advertisement for his company producing 3D modeling software. Using a 3D printer, he produced the necessary details for the scene from "The Music Lesson" by Vermeer.
Jan Vermeer. Music lesson
Music lesson
1665, 74×64.6 cm
During the process of producing the picture, which took him seven months, Jenison discovered some oddities in the Vermeer’s work, which he believed to confirm the theory about the use of improvised tools by the artist. In particular, the canvas contained chromatic aberration and depth of field, which can be "seen" by lenses similar to those used in cameras, but not the human eye.
A frame from the movie "Tim's Vermeer"
David Hockney and the British architect Philip Steadman (author of the book "Vermeer's Camera") were satisfied with the result of Tim’s work and called it a "documentary confirmation" of their theories. But there were also dissenters. Art critic Jonathan Jones published a takedown in The Guardian, where he accused Jenison that he actually copied a poster with a reproduction, but not the masterpiece by Vermeer, as the original painting was in Buckingham Palace and was not at his disposal.
The result of the seven-month work of Tim Jenison: "almost" Vermeer
Like other critics of David Hockney’s theory, Jones based his main claim on the assumption that the proponents of the theory disregard the very nature of human genius. He wrote that Vermeer’s eyes enabled his ability to see things differently than ordinary people saw them. He also recalled that Teller and Penn — the director and producer of the movie "Tim's Vermeer" - are a popular duo of illusionists on American television.

Vermeer: Master of Light, 2001

The most scrupulous and aesthetic documentary dedicated to the work of Vermeer. Unlike the previous one, it focuses on the artist’s ingenious skills of composing, of working with colour and chiaroscuro. The film contains valuable close-ups of original pictures, allowing to view them in the smallest detail, including intricate craquelures.

"One does not simply paint an exact copy of Vermeer," David Bull, senior consultant of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, one of many authoritative experts whose opinions are presented in the film, seems to say.

Scriptwriter and director Joe Krakora has done a fantastic research of Vermeer’s paintings using computer technology, infrared radiation and X-rays. His efforts were recognized by nominating for the American Emmy Award, that recognizes excellence in the television industry, in categories "Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Direction" and "Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Graphic and Artistic Design" (winner in the second category).

The principles of design composing in Vermeer’s canvases are clearly illustrated in the film by means of animated computer graphics.
An important bonus for viewers: the film is narrated by actress Meryl Streep whose voice can hypnotize just as well as paintings by Vermeer slowly floating on the screen. So if you can watch the movie in the original language or with subtitles, do not deprive yourself of this pleasure.
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Cover collage: the picture by Jan Vermeer "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1665), a frame from "Girl with a Pearl Earring" movie (2003).