"Intelligent, searching, and unusual... . Like the painting it describes so well, [the novel] has a way of lingering in the reader's mind." The New York Times Book Review
"A little gem of a novel ... [a] beautifully written exploration of the power of art." Parade
"Stunning ... Haunting" San Francisco Chronicle
Named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly, the Christian Science Monitor, and the San Francisco Chronicle
Nominated for the Book Sense Book of the Year
About the Author
Hometown:San Diego, California
Date of Birth:January 20, 1946
Place of Birth:Racine, Wisconsin
Education:San Diego State University
Read an Excerpt
Cornelius Engelbrecht invented himself. Let me emphasize, straight away, that he isn't what I would call a friend, but I know him enough to say that he did purposely design himself: single, modest dresser in receding colors, mathematics teacher, sponsor of the chess club, mild-mannered acquaintance to all rather than a friend to any, a person anxious to become invisible. However, that exterior blandness masked a burning center, and for some reason that became clear to me only later, Cornelius Engelbrecht revealed to me the secret obsession that lay beneath his orderly, controlled design.
It was after Dean Merrill's funeral that I began to see Cornelius's unmasked heart. We'd all felt the shock of Merrill's sudden death, a loss that thrust us into a temporary intimacy uncommon in the faculty lunchroom of our small private boys' academy, but it wasn't shock or Cornelius's head start in drinking that snowy afternoon in Penn's Den where we'd gone after the funeral that made him forsake his strategy of obscurity. Someone at the table remarked about Merrill's cryptic last words, "love enough," words that now sting me as much as any indictment of my complicity or encouragement, but they didn't then. We began talking of last words of famous people and of our dead relatives, and Cornelius dipped his head and fastened his gaze on his dark beer. I only noticed because chance had placed us next to each other at the table.
He spoke to his beer rather than to any of us. "'An eye like a blue pearl,' was what my father said. And then hedied. During a winter's first snowfall, just like this."
Cornelius had a face I'd always associated with Nero della Francesca's portrait of the Duke of Urbino. It was the shape of his nose, narrow but extremely high-bridged, providing a bench for glasses he did not wear. He seemed a man distracted by a mystery or preoccupied by an intellectual or moral dilemma so consuming that it made him feel superior, above those of us whose concerns were tires for the car or a child's flu. Whenever our talk moved toward the mundane, he became distant, as though he were mulling over something far more weighty, which made his cool smiles patronizing.
"Eye like a blue pearl? What's that mean?" I asked.
He studied my face as if measuring me against some private criteria. "I can't explain it, Richard, but I might show you."
In fact, he insisted that I come to his home that evening, which was entirely out of character. I'd never seen him insist on anything. It would call attention to himself. I think Merrill's "love enough" had somehow stirred him, or else he thought it might stir me. As I say, why he picked me I couldn't tell, unless it was simply that I was the only artist or art teacher he knew.
He took me down a hallway into a spacious study piled with books, the door curiously locked even though he lived alone. Closed off, the room was chilly so he lit a fire. "I don't usually have guests," he explained, and directed me to sit in the one easy chair, plum-colored leather, high-backed and expensive, next to the fireplace and opposite a painting. A most extraordinary painting in which a young girl wearing a short blue smock over a rust-colored skirt sat in profile at a table by an open window.
"My God," I said. It must have been what he'd wanted to hear, for it unleashed a string of directives, delivered at high pitch.
"Look. Look at her eye. Like a pearl. Pearls were favorite items of Vermeer. The longing in her expression. And look at that Delft light spilling onto her forehead from the window." He took out his handkerchief and, careful not to touch the painting, wiped the frame, though I saw no dust at all. "See here," he said, "the grace of her hand, idle, palm up. How he consecrated a single moment in that hand. But more than that"
"Remarkable," I said. "Certainly done in the style of Vermeer. A beguiling imitation."
Cornelius placed his hands on the arm of the chair and leaned toward me until I felt his breath on my forehead. "It is a Vermeer," he whispered.
I sputtered at the thought, the absurdity, his belief. "There were many done in the style of Vermeer, and of Rembrandt. School of Rubens, and the like. The art world is full of copyists."
"It is a Vermeer," he said again. The solemnity of his tone drew my eyes from the painting to him. He appeared to be biting the inside of his cheek. "You don't think so?" he asked, his hand going up to cover his heart.
"It's just that there are so few." I hated to disillusion the man.
"Yes, surely, very few. Very few. He did at the most forty canvases. And only a matter of thirty to thirty-five are located. Welk een schat! En waar is dat alles gebleven?"
"Just the lament of some Dutch art historian. Where has such a treasure gone, or some such thing." He turned to pour us both a brandy. "So why could this not be? It's his same window opening inward at the left that he used so often, the same splash of pale yellow light. Take a look at the figures in the tapestry on the table. Same as in nine other paintings. Same Spanish chair with lion's head finials that he used in eleven canvases, same brass studs in the leather. Same black and white tiles placed diagonally on the floor."
"Subject matter alone does not prove authenticity."
"Granted, but I take you to be a man of keen observation. You are an artist, Richard. Surely you can see that the floor suffers the same distortion of tiles he had in his earlier work, for example, The Music Lesson, roughly dated 1662 to '64, or Girl with the Wineglass, 1660."
I never would have guessed he knew all this. He reeled it off like a textbook. Well, so could I. "That can likewise prove it was done by an inferior imitator, or by van Mieris, or de Hooch. They all did tile floors. Holland was paved with tile."
"Yes, yes, I know. Even George III thought The Music Lesson was a van Mieris when he bought it, but even a king can't make it so. It's a Vermeer." He whispered the name.
I hardly knew what to say. It was too implausible.
He cleared off books and papers from the corner of his large oak desk, propped himself there and leaned toward me. "I can see you still doubt. Study, if you will, the varying depths of field. Take a look at the sewing basket placed forward on the table, as he often did, by the way, almost as an obstruction between the viewer and the figure. Its weave is diffused, slightly out of focus, yet the girl's face is sharply in focus. Look at the lace edge of her cap. Absolutely precise to a pinprick right there at her temple. And now look at the glass of milk. Softedged, and the map on the wall only a suggestion. Agreed?"
I nodded, more out of regard for his urgency than in accord.
"Well, then, he did the same in The Lacemaker, 1669. Which leads me to surmise this was done between 1665 and 1668."
I felt his eyes boring into me as I examined the painting. "You've amassed a great deal of information. Is there a signature?"
"No, no signature. But that was not unusual. He often failed to sign his work. Besides, he had at least seven styles of signature. For Vermeer, signatures are not definite evidence. Technique is. Look at the direction of the brush's stroke, those tiny grooves of the brush hairs. They have their lighted and their shaded side. Look elsewhere. You'll find overlapping layers of paint no thicker than silk thread that give a minute difference in shade. That's what makes it a Vermeer."
I walked toward the painting, took off my glasses to see that close, and it was as he had said. If I moved my head to the right or left, certain brush strokes subtly changed their tint. How difficult it was to achieve that. In other places the surface was so smooth the color must have floated onto the canvas. I suddenly found myself breathing fast. "Haven't you had it appraised? I know an art history professor who could come and have a look."
"No, no. I prefer it not be known. Security risks. I just wanted you to see it, because you can appreciate it. Don't tell a soul, Richard."
"But if it were validated by authorities ... why, the value would be astronomical. A newly discovered Vermeerit would rock the art world."
"I don't want to rock the art world." The blood vessel in his temple pulsated, whether out of conviction of the painting's authenticity or something else, I didn't know.
"Forgive my indelicacy, but how did you obtain it?"
He fixed on me a stony look. "My father, who always had a quick eye for fine art, picked it up, let us say, at an advantageous moment."
"An estate sale or an auction? Then there'd be papers."
"No. No Vermeer has been auctioned since World War I. Let's just say it was privately obtained. By my father, who gave it to me when he died." The line of his jaw hardened. "So there are no records, if that's what you're thinking. And no bill of sale." His voice had a queer defiance.
"There are several possibilities. Most of Vermeer's work passed through the hands of one Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, son of a wealthy Delft brewer. I believe this one did not. When Vermeer died, he left his wife with eleven children and a drawerful of debts. Five hundred guilders for groceries. Another sum for woolens for which the merchant Jannetje Stevens seized twenty-six paintings. Later they were negotiated back to the widow, but only twenty-one of them were auctioned in the settling of his estate. Who got the other five? Artists or dealers in the Guild of St. Luke? Neighbors? Family? This could be one. And of those twenty-one, only sixteen have been identified. Where did the others go? A possibility there too. Also, a baker, Hendrick van Buyten, held two as collateral against a bread bill of six hundred seventeen guilders. Some think van Buyten had even obtained a couple others earlier."
I had to be careful not to be taken in. Just because Cornelius knew facts about Vermeer didn't make his painting one.
"Later, it could have been sold as a de Hooch, whose work was more marketable at the time. Or it could have been thrown in as extra puyk, a give-away item in the sale of a collection of de Hooches or van der Werffs, or it could have been in the estate sale of Pieter Tjammens in Groningen."
He was beyond me now. What sort of person knew that kind of detail?
"Documents report only 'an auction of curious paintings by important masters such as J. van der Meer that had been kept far away from the capital.' There are plenty of possibilities."
All this spilled out of him in a flood. A math teacher! Unbelievable.
But the question of how Cornelius's father obtained the painting, he deftly avoided. I did not know him well enough to press further without being pushy. Not knowing this which he so carefully kept private, I could not believe it to be genuine. I finished the brandy and extricated myself; politely enough, thinking, so what if it isn't a Vermeer? The painting's exquisite. Let the fellow enjoy it.
His father. Presumably the same name. Engelbrecht. German.
Why was it so vital that I concur? Some great thing must be hanging in the balance.
I drove home, trying to put it all out of my mind, yet the face of the girl remained.
* * *
Merrill's funeral the day before had made Cornelius thoughtful. Not of Merrill particularly. Of the unpredictableness of one's end, and what remains unpardoned. And of his father. Snow had blanketed his father's coffin toospecks at first, then connecting, then piling up until the coffin became a white puffy loaf. That jowl-faced minister saying, "One must take notice of the measure of a man" was the only thing said during Merrill's service that he remembered.
Cornelius had to admit on his father's behalf that Otto Engelbrecht was a dutiful father, often stern and then suddenly tender during Cornelius's childhood in Duisburg, near the Dutch border. On this lonely Sunday afternoon with snow still falling gently, Cornelius, reading in his big leather chair, looked up from the page and tried to recall his earliest memory of his father. It may have been his father giving him the little wooden windmill brought back from Holland. It had painted blue blades that turned and a little red door with one hinge missing that opened to reveal a tiny wooden family inside.
He remembered how his father had spent Sunday afternoons with him, the only childtook him to the Dusseldorf Zoo, gave him trumpet lessons himself, pulled him in a sled through the neighborhood, and when Cornelius suffered from the cold, how his father enfolded Cornelius's small hand in his and drew it into his pocket. He taught him chess strategies and made him memorize them, explained in a Dutch museum the reason for van Gogh's tortured skies, the genius of Rembrandt's faces, and when they moved to America, a result of his father's credo to seize advantageous moments, he took him to see the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. These facts Cornelius saw now as only the good intentions of a patched-up life.
Later, in Philadelphia, he was embarrassed by his father's hovering nervousness whenever he brought home a school friend, and understood only vaguely his father's dark command, "If they ask, tell them we are Swiss, and don't say another word." By the time he brought home friends from college, his father had moved the painting into the study and installed a lock, secreting it with a niggard's glee. His father's self-satisfied posture whenever he looked at the paintinghands clasped behind his back, rocking on his toes, then heelsbecame, for a time, a source of nausea to him.
After his mother died, his father, retired and restless, took over tending her garden. Cornelius remembered now the ardent slope of his shoulders as he stooped to eradicate any deviant weed sprouting between rows of cauliflower and cabbage. Did he have to be so relentless? Couldn't he just let one grow, and say I don't know how it slipped through? Joyfully he planted, watered, gave away grocery sacks of vegetables to neighbors.
"Such wonderful tomatoes," one woman marveled.
"You can't get a decent tomato in the supermarket these days." Smiling, he heaped more in her sack.
"We had a victory garden like this during the war," she said, and Cornelius saw him flinch.
Was that his father's Luger, grown huge in his mind, cracking down on a woman's hand reaching for a bun as she was hurried from her kitchen?
The line between memory and imagination was muddled by years of intense rumination, of horrified reading, one book after another devoured with carnivorous urgencyhistories, personal accounts, diaries, documents, war novelsand Cornelius could not be sure now what parts he'd read, what parts he'd overheard his father, Lieutenant Otto Engelbrecht, telling Uncle Friederich about the Raid of the Two Thousand, what became known to academics as Black Thursday, August 6, 1942.
From dark to midnight, they dragged them out of their houses, the raid ordered, historians said, because too few Jews called-up for deportation were reporting at the station, and the train to Westerbork had to be filled. By mid-August they moved to South Amsterdam, a more prosperous area. In September, they were still at it, carting them off to Zentralstelle on van Scheltema Square.
Just like the assembly line at the Duisburg plant. From somewhere, his father's voice.
The rest was a tangle of the printed and the spoken word, enlarged by the workings of his imagination. He played in his mind again the Duisburg memory of creeping back downstairs after bedtime and overhearing his father telling Uncle Friederich the story he, a ten-year-old, didn't understand then. This time he staged it as though his father, after too much Scotch, and bloated by a checkmate following too many losses to Friederich, told his brother when in family circles it was still safe to speak, "You've got to see opportunities and seize them on the spot. That's how it's done. Or, if a quick move isn't expedient, make a plan. Like that painting. When my aide spotted a silver tea set in some Jew's dining room, he made a move to bag it. Wrong time. I had to stop him. Property of the Fuhrer."
Cornelius had read of that, the Puls van following the raids the next day, street by street, to cart away ownerless Jewish possessions for the Hausraterfassung, the Department for the Appropriation of Household Effects.
"That's when I saw that painting, behind his head. All blues and yellows and reddish brown, as translucent as lacquer. It had to be a Dutch master. Just then a private found a little kid covered with tablecloths behind some dishes in a sideboard cabinet. We'd almost missed him. My aide glared at me, full of accusation that I could slip like that and be distracted. With any excusethe painting, for example, or my reprimandhe might even have reported it."
What always rang in his mind with the crash of dishes, Cornelius would never now be sure was memory or his own swollen imagination: "So I shoved my boot up the Jew-boy's dirty ass. But I took care to note the house number."
What had happened next wasn't difficult to piece together. As soon as they delivered their quota, at 1:00 or 2:00 A.M., while other Jews still lay frozen in their hiding places and when the streets were dead quiet, his father went back. The painting was still there, hanging in spite of Decree 58/42, reported in several histories: All Jewish art collections had to be deposited with Lippmann and Rosenthal, a holding company. But this was not a collection, only a single painting, blatantly displayed, or ignorantly. What could his father have thought? That therefore it deserved to be taken? And then would come his father's voice resounding somehow through the years, "By the time I got there, the tea set was already gone."
Going over the same visions he thought his father had, hoped his father had, kept Cornelius awake at night, filled his dreams with the orgy of plunder, mothers not chosen lining up to die, pain not linked to sin, smoke drifting across fences and coating windows of Christian homes, children's teeth like burnt pearls. Driven by imagination, he read like a zealot on two subjects: Dutch art and the German occupation of the Netherlands. Only one gave him pleasure. Only one might dissolve the image of his father's hat and boots and Luger.
Compelled by his need to know, Cornelius traveled to Amsterdam one summer. He avoided van Scheltema Square, went straight to the Rijksmuseum, examined breathlessly Vermeer's works, and in one delicious afternoon, convinced himself of the authenticity of his family's prize by seeing layers of thin paint applied in grooved brush strokes creating light and shadow on the blue sleeve of a lady reading a letter, just like those on the sleeve of his sewing girl. A few days later he went to The Hague. At the Royal Cabinet of Paintings in the Mauritshuis, he saw points of brilliant pink-white light at the corners of the opened mouth and in the eyes of Vermeer's girl in a red feathered hat, the same as on his sewing girl. In the musty municipal archives of Delft, Amsterdam, Leiden and Groningen he poured through old documents and accounts of estate sales. He found only possibilities, no undeniable evidence. Still, the evidence was in the museumsthe similarities were undeniable. He flew home, hoarding conviction like a stolen jewel.
"It is. It is," he told his father.
Then came the slow smile that cracked his father's face. "I knew it had to be."
Together they went over every square inch of the painting, seduced anew by its charms, yet the rapture was insufficient to drown out the truth Cornelius could no longer deny: If the painting were real, so was the atrocity of his father's looting. He'd had no other way to obtain it. Now with Friederich and his mother gone, only two in the whole world knew, and that, together with the twin images in their dreams, bound them willingly or not into a double kinship.
He started to tell someone else once, his onetime wife who had laughed when he said it was a Vermeer. Laughed, and asked how his father got it, and he couldn't say, and her laughter jangled in his ears long afterward. She claimed he turned cold to her after that, and within a year she left, saying he loved things rather than people. The possible truth of the accusation haunted him with all the rest.
After his father's stroke, when the money from such a painting would set him up finely in a rest home, Cornelius agonized. Even an inquiry to a dealer might bring Israeli agents to his father's door with guns and extradition papers efficiently negotiated by the internationally operating Jewish Documentation Center, and a one-way plane ticket to Jerusalem, courtesy of the Mossad. More than a thousand had been hunted down so far, and not just Reichskommissars or SS Commandants either, so Cornelius moved back home to care for him.
Finally, when there would be no more afternoons of wheeling him, freshly bathed and shaven, out to the sun of the garden, when pain clutched through the drugs, his father murmured fragments, in German, the language he'd left behind. In a room soured by the smell of dying, a smell Cornelius knew his father could recognize, Otto whispered, "Bring the painting in."
When they both knew the end was close, Cornelius heard, faintly, "I only joined because of the opportunity to make lifelong friendships with people on the rise.
Table of ContentsLove Enough 1
A Night Different From All Other Nights 36
Hyacinth Blues 82
From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers 155
Still Life 198
Magdalena Looking 224
Reading Group Guide
"Why does the world need another painting of a woman alone in a room? Or a hundred more paintings?"
"The world doesn't know all that it needs yet," Pieter said, "but there will come a time when another of your paintings of a woman by a window will provide something."
I have a book that I read every year. Over the years it has become a comforting ritual of discovery as I always come away with renewed understanding of my place in the world and the pleasure of visiting old friends. I have a favorite picture, favorite childhood toy, favorite food...the list continues. I know what I like. More importantly, I know what speaks to me. I recognize the familiar warmth that begins to radiate through me, finally touching my heart as this certain something fulfills a part of me that I may not have even realized was wanting. The book, the toy, the food, the painting—each has become my own.
Such is the case of the Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, as described by author Susan Vreeland. The painting—this girl so simple in her dress and demeanor—immediately claims a space in each of her owners' hearts and lives, as an intimate relationship is formed between objet d'art and her possessor. It is the girl, however, who is master as she becomes the keeper of their secrets, while "...they would never know her." She is idolized and coveted by a Nazi man and his son, secreted away to hide past misdeeds. Quietly befriended by a young Jewish girl during dangerous times, her silence becomes acceptance in the face of a life of constant criticism and fear. She is privately adored by a middle-aged man, reminding him of the innocent flush of first love, a love he let slip away. She is the innocent onlooker to the dissolution of a marriage; the savior of a man and his child; the light in a country woman's life; a shining moment in a young girl's life—she is that young girl, wanting so much to learn her father's trade, yet knowing her dreams are futile. She is a young woman at rest, whispering, "Let me hear your dreams, questions, and desires. I have all the time in the world—and I understand because I, too, have wished."
Vreeland leads us gently backwards in time with a reverse chronology that reveals the painting's complex history. As we retrace the painting's circuitous route from seventeenth century Amsterdam and its creator's easel to its present unlikely home, we—like the girl in the painting—bear silent witness to the lives that the Vermeer has touched. Each chapter is a meditation on the joys and sorrows that bind the human heart deeper into its inexorably mysterious relationship with art.
We respond to Vermeer because he shows us a part of ourselves. He believed that art—whether it becomes accepted as a masterpiece or not—should speak to the soul, representing a truth so precisely as to make it undeniable to those who glance upon it. In today's Web-wide world, this is more important than ever as an endless stream of sights, sounds, even smells barrage our senses. More than ever, we need to find something that makes us pause and look inside, even for a second. Perhaps that is the importance of this beautifully rendered novel. It serves as a guidepost on the never-ending journey of self-discovery.
ABOUT SUSAN VREELAND
Susan Vreeland's short fiction has appeared in journals such as New England Review, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her first novel What Love Sees, was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. She has taught English Literature, creative writing, and art in the San Diego Unified School District for thirty years.
"Intelligent, searching and unusual, the novel is filled with luminous moments; like the painting it describes so well, it has a way of lingering in the reader's mind."
—The New York Times Book Review
"A pleasant surprise from the very beginning."
"Brave, ambitious, breathtaking."
"True to the spirit of Vermeer, Vreeland uses art as a vehicle for capturing special moments in the lives of ordinary people; true, too, to Vermeer's legacy, she creates art that brings a unique pleasure into the lives of readers."—Booklist
A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN VREELAND
Q. Why did you choose Vermeer as the artist? Does his work mean something special to you?
A. That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure centuries longer than its maker, can survive catastrophe, neglect, even mistreatment, has always filled me with wonder. In museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a medieval illuminated manuscript, or a painting of a person with yearnings like mine, I am moved with awe and tenderness. This is the province and privilege of the writer, to let those concrete things that move us feed our imagination until we find meaning in them. In the case of paintings, I like to ask: Who sat as model for the artist? What was their relationship? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him the day he worked on this? Was his wife happy? Was he contented with his work? Beautiful art books stimulate my thinking similarly, and so, during a period of extended illness, I pored over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Johannes Vermeer exhibition and let my fancy run freely. Here was my ancestral and spiritual heritage, unknown to me before. His images of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, encouraged me to imagine my way out of my uncertain circumstances by imagining my way into these paintings. I found a healing tranquility in these women who reminded me of Wordsworth's line: "With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things." Vermeer's characteristic honey-colored light coming through the window bathed their faces and touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene. I saw that Vermeer had the same reverence for hand-made things that I felt. He, too, was a lover of the qualities of things: the pale luminous colors in a hand-dipped window pane, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, the rough nap of a hand-knotted Turkish carpet, a hand-drawn wall map. He invested them with connotations. An earthenware pitcher, a loaf of bread, a sewing basket suggest home and family. The window, a letter, the Turkish carpet, the map all speak of an alluring world beyond the home. He was offering them as objects worthy of stories. The cords of connection tightened, and I felt free to partner with him in the act of creation. To his spare interior, for example, I added a glass of milk which, to my fictional Vermeer, "made the whole corner sacred by the tenderness of just living."
Q. Does the girl in the painting carry a special import for you, both in terms of the novel you have written and personally?
A. When I was nine, my great grandfather, a landscape painter, taught me to mix colors. With his strong hand surrounding my small one, he guided the brush until a calla lily appeared as if by magic on a page of textured watercolor paper. How many girls throughout history would have longed to be taught that, but had to do washing and mending instead? Magdalena, the girl in my imaginary painting is drinking in the view outside the window instead of doing her sewing. What does she see? Undoubtedly, things she wants to paint. That longing for skill enough to render for others how one sees the world parallels my own yearning to write well.
Q. Reviewers have noted how beautifully you have rendered the Dutch landscape. Was the landscape an integral part of the story?
A. Landscape is more than flat land covered by floodwater, the seeping of peat bogs, a river of liquid pewter viewed from a sentry tower. It's an influence on what a person values, what she is willing to sacrifice or argue for. The interior landscape of a soul is, in part, a reflection of the exterior landscape. After one hundred days of confinement following a bone marrow transplant, I rejoiced in taking short walks to a nearby park as I was writing Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The uncertainty of my survival made every blade of grass gorgeous in its green intensity, lifting itself up, doing its part to make the world beautiful. Every breeze touching my neck was a gift, revitalizing me. I looked at the world tenderly, intensely, gratefully, the way Magdalena did. Is it any wonder that landscape is vital to the stories?
Q. Are you trying to send a particular message about art? In the book you write that Vermeer believed that painting helped him not only to find and to understand the truth, but also to convey it for an eternity. Do you think it is possible to do this? Is this one of your goals as a writer?
A. To feel the grace of God in a painting of the dear, quiet commonness of a domestic interior, or in a landscape, seascape, cityscape, trains us to feel the grace of God in the thing itself in situ. Does the world need another painting of people quietly going about their lives? Does it need another story? Another poem? Yes. We as a people are generally rushing headlong through the decades of our lives without reflection. We keep an unwholesome pace. We don't stop to glory in the sheen of rainwater on a stone or on a child's cheek. It's an oft told tale. If a story or a painting or a poem can urge us toward more contemplative living by which we discover some truth, then, yes, that function of art justifies sacrifices incurred in the making of it, and is a worthy goal of any artist. As for eternity, that, in part, is the responsibility of the receiver.
Q.What kind of research did you do before you began writing Girl in Hyacinth Blue?
A. First let me say that I loved the research because it enriched my sense of personal origin and heritage and it yielded direction to my writing. The decree against keeping pigeons, the superstition of witches, the devastating floods, the engineering of windmills, the French occupation all provided material for plot, texture, character and metaphor. I'd been to The Netherlands only once, twenty five years ago for three days, and I've never seen a Vermeer painting face to face, so I read books on Vermeer, Dutch art, Dutch social and cultural history, the changing geography of The Netherlands as more land was reclaimed from the sea, the Holocaust as experienced in The Netherlands, Erasmus's adages, the history of costume, Passover and the practice of Jewish customs, the diamond trade. I studied historical maps in a wonderful collection at the University of California, San Diego, to learn if villages and canals existed at the time of these stories. This research was ongoing while writing, not just done before. It's only when one gets into the heart of the writing that one knows exactly what one needs. By recent count, I consulted 75 books. Particularly helpful were Johannes Vermeer, the catalog of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition, published by the National Gallery and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis; Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History by John Montias; Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry by Jacob Presser; andMemorbook: History of Dutch Jewry by Mozes Heiman Gans.
Q. Four of the eight chapters had been previously published in various journals. Why did you decide to combine them all into one book? Why did you structure it in this manner, moving from present into the past? Did you write this book from the beginning, or from the end?
A. Without knowing that I was embarking on a novel, I wrote the first story, "Love Enough," as part of a collection of stories on various arts. Unwilling to abandon the painting I had created, I wrote a companion piece from the point of view of the painting's subject, and called it "Magdalena Looking." A vast gap separated the two. It occurred to me that I could write one story per century, tracing the painting's owners. I called the series "Delft Quartet." Still my imagination wasn't content until I filled in those smaller spaces with companion stories. I wanted to create the Jewish family from whom the painting was looted. I wanted to endanger the painting's existence, and I wanted the artist to speak for himself. Only when I wrote Vermeer's own story, "Still Life," did I realize that I had a composite novel. Having conceived of the contemporary story first, I kept it that way in my mind, and thereby preserved the mystery of whether the painting was, in fact, a genuine Vermeer. Starting at the painting's creation would have spoiled that.
Q. Why do you think your book has touched so many people? What do you think this book gives the reader?
A. The girl in the painting, not doing her mending, simply thinking and gazing out the window, gives us permission to have moments of reflective inactivity. Saskia's cry to her decent but workaholic husband, "There's got to be some beauty too," Adriaan's sudden grief that he had "fancied love a casual adjunct and not the central turning shaft making all parts move," his regret that he "had not stood astonished before the power of its turning" urge us to give more of our lives to love and beauty and reflection and to the intense noticing of commonplace things.
Q. How did your work as a teacher of literature, writing, and art affect the way that you approached and wrote the novel?
A. For me, bits of poetry, scenes crafted with paint or words, observations from nature all come together in my work. As a writer I am a hunter and gatherer. For example, while researching tropes for a set of lessons on figures of speech, I find my own prose growing richer with them. In guiding students to appreciate in their reading the felicities of language, the psychological depth of character, the exploration of serious themes, the engagement with fundamental issues of life, mortality, love, faith, artful living, and self-actualization, I concurrently work to infuse these same elements into my writing. While I am encouraging self-actualization of my students through their reading, I am actualizing my own fuller self through writing, by considering those issues mindfully and imaginatively, by living other lives and thereby extending my own. Michaelangelo is said to have remarked, "God is in the details." Similarly in writing, after getting down the basic structure of a story, I love the period of revision where I can add more texture with details. It is no mere coincidence that the last stages of writing are called polishing, and here I think of the ivory sheen on Michaelangelo's most famous Pieta. With this polishing comes the refinement of voice, the unexpected uncovering of inter-relatedness, the possibility of suggesting something meaningful with a detail that reaches into my readers' lives. That is nearly the most wonderful experience I can imagine, and it doesn't come easily or often enough, but when it does, it humbles me with gratitude.
Q. Are you working on anything now?
A. Yes. Every day. I'm working on a novel about an Italian Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman to contribute significantly to art history. She was raped by her painting teacher, betrayed by her father, uprooted by the constant need to find work. It's a story of her self-actualization as a painter, daughter, wife, mother, friend, and independent woman ahead of her time.
After that, I need to complete a collection of stories exploring the ways art penetrates lives. There are stories involving Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh told from the points of view of peripheral characters. Other stories make reference to paintings by Matisse, Seurat and others. Some are about fictional painters, a sculptor's model, a ceramicist, children performing opera, a child drawing with crayon and imitating Picasso, a poor girl making a book of drawings while on a bus ride to give to her boyfriend in a penitentiary.
After that, I need to revise Cedar Spirit, a novel of Emily Carr, the Canadian painter who struggles to free herself from Victorian convention in order to engage in friendship with an Indian woman, as well as paint her beloved British Columbian wilderness and its native subjects. As a result, she comes to adopt a native spirituality.
After that, oh my, I can't wait to find out.
Exclusive Author Essay
In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was drawn once to a small Phoenician glass medicine pitcher, luminous pale yellow-green with a rounded belly and a long, curved snout of a spout. It was made in the second century. People rose in my imagination -- its maker who knew that form followed function even while a strange animal took shape in his mind; the mother of a sick child who may not have known the maker (so many hands might have possessed it even then) and who let a few drops fall from the spout onto a child's tongue. But glass. Glass! For it to have survived undamaged for 1,800 years, compared to the brevity of its maker's life, moved me with awe and tenderness.
Not just museums, but families have ancestral treasures, too. My mother has a key embedded in swirling melted glass from a windowed door in the Chicago fire of 1871. I grew up with certain paintings that had snippets of lives attached, the landscapes of my mother's step-grandfather who came from England to paint America as a boy. When I was nine, he taught me to mix colors. With his strong hand surrounding my small one, he guided the brush until a calla lily appeared on a page of real, textured watercolor paper. How many girls throughout history would have longed to be taught that but had to do washing and mending instead?
Still, I envied writers whose novels gushed out from their own growing up, rich in ethnicity or place or history. Countering my complaints about my ethnic blandness, the lack of a ready-made family story, one of my friends said, "Go back further." All I had was a love for art, a Dutch name, and a trip 20 years earlier when, to my surprise, I passed through a village in North Holland named Vreeland. I had nothing more than that -- except a library card and uninterrupted days of solitude, two years of cancer treatment and recovery, during which I could imagine my way out of my uncertain circumstances and imagine my way into a heritage alive with vitality and history and the endurance of beauty. I did have a past, longer than my own life span, and Dutch painting revealed it to me.
Poring over the National Gallery catalogue of the Johannes Vermeer exhibition, I felt a growing love for a people and a place I could call mine. I was Dutch! And all those brave Dutchmen fending off floods on their fragile, sunken land were my kinsmen. But those complacent matrons admiring their jewels, married to ship captains trading in African souls, were my kinswomen, too. A girl who had eaten her porridge from a blue-and-white Delftware bowl, crouching on a swept Delft street with her orange skirt ballooning out behind her like a pumpkin could have been me in another age. It was Vermeer who gave them to me.
Seeing domestic items repeated in many of his paintings -- a wall map showing where that captain sailed, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, a Turkish rug, a golden pitcher, a Spanish chair, a luminous open window of pale yellow glass -- told me that he, too, had reverence for a family's possessions. Now the cords of connection tightened, and I felt free to add objects of my own imagination -- a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl's worn clogs and her new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting -- and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had a start. (Susan Vreeland)
Susan Vreeland's short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her first novel, What Love Sees, was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. Vreland teaches English literature, creative writing, and art in the San Diego public schools.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If I die for any reason other than old age, it will be that I have finally decided to rid myself of a world where shallow, unintelligent people write this book off as a 'rip-off' of Tracy Chevalier's 'lovely' Girl With a Pearl Earring. For the record, I have read both books. I was repulsed by the cold-heartedness of Chevalier's story and the unlikable, un-relatable characters, while I was warmed and touched by the innocence, the complexities, and the intrigue of Vreeland's. Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a unique, ingenious story. Several stories, actually. Vreeland pulls together the lives of a dozen people from opposite ends of the social, cultural, and economic spectrums. Each character is developed, has his or her own story and ghosts and past, and yet they are all connected by this one painting that is at once mysterious, charming, and beautiful. This is one of those books you think about long after you finish reading it. It is one of my favorite books, and one I recommend whole-heartedly.
I picked up this book because its about a fictional Vermeer painting. My book group will be reading the Tracy Chevalier book soon, also about a Vermeer painting - Girl with a Pearl Earring. I thought it would be interesting to compare the two books. I am very impressed with the book Ms Vreeland has written. Everything about it is excellent, the premise for the story, the writing is evocative and draws the reader into each owners story. The painting is a strong and constant character throughout the book and is a silent witness to the events in the lives of its owners. I have just finished this book, I like so much I'm reading it again immediately.
This is one of the most imaginative books I've ever read. There was nothing about it that disappointed (except it is too short). I agree with those who say it is a book that can be re-read. I had to send it to my niece since she is a fledgling artist. She read it quickly and has told me she is re-reading it in reverse. I found Girl in Hyacinth Blue to be superior to Girl With a Pearl Earring.
I absolutely loved this book! I cannot remember reading anything like this before. I really felt like I had an understanding of how art can move people, and enjoyed the snapshots of different time periods. I came away feeling educated as well as entertained. I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially folks interested in the arts. It tops my list of reads this year, and I work at a library!
I loved this book and the concept of following a piece of art through it's history. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies "The Red Violin".
I loved the way this book told the story of how this painting got to where it ended up. Very cool stories of different people and different lives they lead! Definately worth the read.
This is a very good book and I recommend that it should be read. It tells the story of a Vermeer painting and how it falls into the various lives of each of its owners.
Author could have done a better job closing plotlines - the daughter to marry Fritz (I forget her name), how did she "part with" the painting given to her by her father as an of contrition to her mother? Did Richard ever speak to Cornelius after that? Did Cornelius ever get his "proof"? Did all of Hannah's family perish in concentration camps or did some survive? I understand it was just groups of characters that gave their part in the painting's history, but wanting to know more about each group took over as I neared a chapter's end. The segues between stories were awkward, especially the hyacinth chapter; hers was the most trying to keep reading. Long and painful for 119 pages on my nook. Pity, as I quite enjoy historical and art based fiction.
I cannot believe so many rated this booksohighly. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a way better book. The stories were interesting and had potential, but they were told in a confusing manner. I was wanting the author the weave or relate the stories. I was left wondering what happened to the math professor and the painting.
In the opening of this moving work of fiction, an undiscovered Dutch master's painting, circa 1665, is shown in secret to a professor of art. This expert is qualified to classify the portrait as a genuine and theretofore undiscovered work of Jan Vermeer but is reluctant to do so because of the shady auspices of its acquisition: it had been seized from a private home during Nazi occupation. Since the acquisition is less than honorable, ownership of the painting is both a blessing and a curse. This theme is beautifully woven throughout the story. The impact upon viewers of this simple portrait of a young girl is immense. Admirers are drawn to the blue of the smock she is wearing, the "pearl" of her eye, the luminescence of the light streaming through the window near her. And, although the subject is depicted engaged in the simple task of hand sewing, it is obvious that there was something else going on when this painting was being created. Through eight gorgeous and historically detailed chapters, author Susan Vreeland masterfully follows the ownership of the painting backward through time. As she plants and waters the seed of exploring the human ability to become attached to inanimate objects, we are given a view into the life and relationships of each successive owner. The challenge of the first set of characters is an awesome one: how to adequately enjoy something which is, technically, forbidden to own. Immediately, the reader's curiosity is piqued on many levels: Of course, What is the origin of this painting? But also, How does one come to terms with ownership of artistic property gained by questionable means? How can one enjoy it? And, of course, we ask ourselves again and again, if the work is authentic, was it actually done by Vermeer? And, if it was, what was the origin? Who is the unforgettable subject? And, as we may ask ourselves in the case of the famous Mona Lisa, what was the subject thinking while she was posing and just how did the composition come about? The challenges of each of the subsequent owners are as awesome as the professor's, and while each has a unique story, all of them are similarly enamored of the same stranger's work. The delight- and the pain- of their individual human drama connects their stories while demanding our attention to a poignancy and delicacy that is unforgettable. As the author draws us in tighter and tighter to the humble creation of the painting, we can fully appreciate how one person's work can impact the lives of so many. With wonderfully human characters, a highly engaging and thought-provoking story line, and beautiful, painterly prose, *Girl in Hyacinth Blue* is a glorious and fresh work of fiction, and a book capable of entertaining while also having a deep, marvelous emotional impact on the reader.
Good book! I enjoyed the way the story started with the current owner of the painting, then traced it's ownership back through time. The characters at each point in time had little in common with those before and after, but all were tied together by the painting. Interesting, circular story.
It's difficult for me to give this book a review because I typically base my reviews on whatever expectations I had of books or movies or whatever before I read/saw them....but I don't know that I had any expectations of this book. The research was done and the book was written very well, but it didn't really suck me in as have many books in the last year. Overall, I'd say if you liked 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', this book may interest you as it deals with the same artist, but I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone.
Interesting story of a painting and the lives it touched. It was a little hard to follow at points as it worked its way backward from present time to its creation.
Not nearly as good as historical fiction such as Girl with a Pearl Earring. Writing is not very elegant and characters are not very well developed.
A very interesting and unique treatment of the story. I thought the story started a bit slow, but then I was presently surprised after getting past first chapter. The story caught my attention and still left small pieces of the history up to my imagination.
This collection of short stories begins with the reclusive owner of a beautiful painting, which he believes to be a Vermeer. The seven that follow trace the ownership of the painting back through decades. Some touch on the Holocaust, other delve into Dutch history, all the stories are connected by the common thread of the painting and the effect it has on each of its owners. There are love stories, tales of poor farmers and rich aristocrats, and even one featuring Vermeer himself. I was expecting this to be a boring read (I have no idea why), but I found myself really enjoying each account of the paintings journey through the years. Vreeland gives us a glimpse into eight very different worlds, obviously some of the tales work better than others, but all of them are interesting. She also manages to capture the reader¿s attention with the first story and give the collection a sense of resolution with the final one.
Intriguing collection of short stories tied together by a work of art by the talented Dutch painter, Vermeer.
This novel is a series of 8 short stories, some first person and others third person, surrounding a Vermeer painting and its owners from present day working back to when the work was created. The painting has a different meaning for each story's protagonist.The stories range through centuries of Dutch historyYou could see the stories as paired. "Love Enough" and "A Night Different From All Other Nights" deal with the Holocaust. "Adagia" and "Hyacinth Blue" are the least connected--both are set in the 19th century and deal with the memories of disappointed love. "Morningshine" and "From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers" are linked by a foundling. "Still Life" is Vermeer's own story and "Magdalena Looking" features his daughter, the model for the painting. I think the two opening and closing stories are the strongest.The writing style is natural and flows well, but none of the individual stories feels like a standout to me, that contains a twist or evoked sharp emotion, nor do they feel as if they together made up a whole stronger than their parts. I can't help but compare this novel to a film with a very similar theme, The Red Violin, which was much stronger both in its parts and its whole. It's not that this is a bad book--but I don't think it's striking or memorable. It was a short, quick pleasant read though that held me to the end.
A collection of interconnected short stories about people who come into possession of a priceless painting, the Girl in Hyacinth Blue raises intriguing questions about how beauty affects the soul. The answers Vreeland comes up with are surprising and insightful, but the stories themselves are uneven. One or two made me close the book so I could ponder their meaning, but I found many more of them a bit dull.
This book was a powerful influence. The way Vreeland uses the connected story technique to trace a painting from its origins to its modern day owner was so unique, I had to read the book again. Recommended for all.
An excellent read! This book paints portraits in the mind - masterfully capturing a series of reverse chronological relationships with a fascinating work of art. Each owner's life is beautifully detailed and brilliantly captured. As with a masterpiece painting, the momentary scene in each person's life is captured in full before moving on to the next subject. If art enriches your human experience, and If you love how a work of art can reverberate within your soul, read this book.
Is it a Vermeer or isn't it? That is the thread that holds these eight short stories together. Susan Vreeland takes us on a journey back in time that starts with the current owner of a beautiful painting thought to be one of the lost paintings of the Dutch artist Vermeer. As we approach each sub-story we travel back a little further in time to each previous owner of the painting and how owning it has affected their lives. Set mostly in Holland and The Netherlands the Dutch names for places can be a bit difficult to pronounce but do not detract from the overall power of this small book. Each individual story line is easy to follow. My only question would be what ultimately happens to the current owner of the painting (who is afraid to show it to the world since his father obtained it through his position with the German police during WW II). I highly recommend this book.
Great book that follows the life of a painting from creator to owners. Reveals a colorful history & great stories interwined with historical events.
This was a good book, although I wasn't engaged enough in the book to read it all the way through for a long time. It sat on my night stand with other books I was reading, often passed over for something else. I finally finished it last week. The progression in time backwards over the centuries of the various owners of the painting to the point of it being painted was a good plot concept.
A fine book. Each chapter a story in itself. Some incredibly sad and I found the Chapter, Hyacinth Blues, hilarious!