When I Paint My Masterpiece part 1: She’s delicate and seems like a Vermeer


When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971) part 1

by Jochen Markhorst

I           She’s delicate and seems like a Vermeer

 The wonderful documentary Tim’s Vermeer (2013) does stir things up among the esteemed ladies and gentlemen of art critics and connoisseurs, led by The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones. “A man who totally fails to paint a Vermeer,” he harshly writes. Art historian Benon Grosvenor (Art History News) agrees wholeheartedly, donating half his page to an artistic reader who finds Tim’s Vermeer “laughable” and then fires hail at the American millionaire who dares to claim that Vermeer is not a “God-given genius”.

However, the admirers and compliments are in the majority. Conceivable; it ís a spectacular documentary. It tells the story of Tim Jennison, the successful inventor and pioneer of digital video and computer graphics who is fascinated by the question How does he do it? and then becomes obsessed with the idea that Vermeer was able to create his extraordinary masterpieces thanks to optical aids. Although he is not a painter – he has never even painted anything – he resolves to crack Vermeer’s “trick” and then paint a Vermeer himself. And not just any one: the late, brilliant masterpiece The Music Lesson (1662/65). Jennison spends years on the project. He visits the Netherlands, talks to scientists and connoisseurs like David Hockney, experiments with a man-sized camera obscura, other projection techniques and mirrors, and then gets to work. First to recreate the room and furniture, the heavy tablecloth, the virginal, the viola da gamba and all the other objects, and then another 130 days for the painting itself. In the end, the whole undertaking takes 1825 days, exactly five years.

The result is quite mind-boggling. Tim Jennison manages to develop a technique that captures light as Vermeer does, to copy a Music Lesson that comes frighteningly close to the original – all the more frightening because we are looking at the first painting by a non-painter here. Hockney is stupéfait: “It’s amazing, actually.” Professor Philip Steadman, the architect who wrote Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces (2001), is even a tad more complimentary. “I think this is better than Vermeer,” he says only half-jokingly. Jennison remains modest. “I’m not a painter. I’m trying to show the power of the concept.” Nevertheless, he cannot hide a lump in his throat and a tear as he stands next to his finished masterpiece. Hockney is becoming increasingly cheerful. “I say you might disturb quite a lot of people,” he concludes, smirking sardonically.

The documentary ends in Tim’s bedroom, where the painting hangs above the fireplace. Tim remains silent, looks proudly at the work once more, folds his hands in front of his stomach and as the picture fades to black, familiar piano chords sound: over the closing credits, Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” plays.

There is an amusing parallel to be drawn between the conception of Tim’s Vermeer and the genesis of Dylan’s song: both begin with the question How does he do it. In Dylan’s case, long-haired piano beast Leon Russell is obsessed with Dylan’s songwriting, as we know from the wonderful article “Whose Masterpiece Is It Anyway?” (Judas! #9, April 2004) by Peter Doggett, for which Doggett interviewed Leon Russell at home in June 2002.

Russell tells that at the time, in the early 1970s, he was fascinated by the stories about a Dylan who writes his songs amid the studio noise of waiting session musicians at the ping-pong table and coffee ladies, the Dylan who, while the producer and musicians listen back to the recording, is already working on the next song. He occasionally runs into him, backstage at Fillmore East, Leon recalls, and on one such occasion he dares to ask Dylan, who is always friendly and communicative to him (“he endeavoured to show me all the stuff that I asked him”), if he can witness such a writing session:

“I begged him and begged him, and after a little while he agreed to show me. So I called my guys – Carl Radle on bass, Jimmy Keltner on drums, and [Jesse] Ed Davis on guitar – and we went up to Blue Rock Studios in the Village, and I cut these two tracks for Bob. It took about 30 minutes. Then Bob came down, and I said, let me see you write songs to these.”

And then Leon’s wish is granted:

“Bob got his pad out and started walking around, writing stuff down. I followed him round the room, watching him as he was writing. When it got to the end, they’d rewind the tape and play it again, and he kept writing. And then when he’d got the words the way he liked, he cut the vocals.”

The charming anecdote offers right away the title explanation of Doggett’s article – whose masterpiece is it really? Or are they actually, to be precise. Remarkably, Leon has already recorded the music for both songs, in “about 30 minutes”, without any interference from Dylan.

Both songs are simply credited to Dylan alone, neither Russell nor anyone else has credits for either song. Apparently, the accompanying music is considered insignificant confections; the lyrics are the song, and/or the melody to which Dylan sings those lyrics. Russell makes no point of it – he neutrally calls it “a chord sequence” that he just got from somewhere, and for “Watching The River Flow” he copies a riff he has used before (for “Dixie Lullaby”, from his 1969 debut album). He also more or less dashes off the track for what will soon become “Masterpiece”. And yes indeed, if we listen to Russell’s records from that era, we can hear “Masterpiece”-like snippets, chord changes and the stomp passing by here, there and everywhere. Not only on Leon Russell and the Shelter People and on the album he makes with Marc Benno, Asylum Choir II, but especially on a recording that only emerged decades later: The Castle Session 1971.

On 5 February 1971, a month before Leon has his dream session with Dylan in Manhattan, he is in Holland, recording a concert with his Shelter People for television broadcaster VPRO. In an unusual setting, by the way: in a room of Castle Groeneveld in Baarn. Already in the first bars of the first song, “Come On Into My Kitchen”, we can hum some “Masterpiece”-snippets, and further on, Dylan’s spirit appears to be in that castle room anyway: number 2 is a brilliant “Girl From The North Country”, after which the band is allowed to join in, a little later “Dixie Lullabye” is on the setlist, the lick of which he will use for “Watching The River Flow”, and then back to Dylan with an irresistible “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” – – all of it with Carl Radle on bass, who will also join the Dylan session in New York a month later. Guitarist Don Preston was present here in Baarn , but not in New York. Joe Schick, engineer and owner of Blue Rock Studio corrects the historiography on that point: the session guitarist really was Jesse Ed Davis.

Leon Russell at the piano in the music room of a 17th-century castle in Holland – seems like a Vermeer. And he does get some kind of credit after all, half a century later, in the most honourable way: with a name-check in 2020’s “My Own Version Of You” (I’m gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell).


To be continued. Next up When I Paint My Masterpiece part 2: Oh, the streets of SoHo


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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