A professor invites invites a colleague from the art department to his home to view a painting he has kept secret for decades, in Susan Vreeland's powerful historical novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The professor swears it's a Vermeer -- but why exactly has he kept it hidden so long? The reasons unfold in a gripping sequence of stories that trace ownership of the work back to Amsterdam during World War II and still further to the moment of the painting's inception.
Cornelius Engelbrecht harbors a secret obsession-an intensely captivating painting, thought to be an original Vermeer, given to him by his father, who acquired it under highly questionable circumstances during World War II. Vreeland's novel, which starts at the end of the story and works backward to the beginning, uncovers the painting's wild, diversely layered, sometimes daunting history of ownership, tracing it all the way back to its climactic inception. We learn that the painting was once sold in desperation to pay for food, and even sent downstream with an out-of-wedlock baby. The reader lives the stories of those who possessed it and comes to understand the ways it has possessed its many owners; it serves variously as a symbol of greed, love and inspiration.
This is an ambitious book that provides a peephole into the past, into an eternal source of wonder: the origins of our most captivating artistic conceptions.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The eight interlinked stories in this impressive debut collection revolve around a single painting by Vermeer; as one might expect, they contain insightful observations about the worth and the truth of art. Vreeland's skill goes deeper still; these poised and atmospheric tales present a rich variety of characters whose voices convey distinctive personalities, and each offers glimpses of Holland during different historical eras. The chronology is reversed: the first story occurs in the present day, and succeeding narratives go back in time to the 17th century. Set in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, the moving "A Night Different from All Other Nights" portrays the Jewish family from whom the painting will be stolen after they have been sent to a concentration camp, and re-poses the question (also asked in the opening story) of how killers can revere beauty. Two narratives that treat the same event--the birth of a baby and a turning point in a marriage--take place in neighboring hamlets near Groningen during the St. Nicholas flood of 1717. Each fills in details the other does not have, and each provides indelible images of brutally hard life in a waterlogged land. In the penultimate "Still Life," set in 17th-century Delft, a poverty-hounded Vermeer begins the portrait of his daughter Magalena. "Magdalena Looking," which closes the book, reflects the evanescence of the moments that paintings capture. Unobtrusively, Vreeland builds a picture of the Dutch character, equal parts sober work ethic and faith in a harsh religion. Against these national characteristics she juxtaposes the universal human capacity for love--romantic, familial, parental--and a kind of obsessive love, the quest for beauty that distinguishes otherwise ordinary lives. The historical details that ground each narrative in time and place are obliquely revealed. In the same way, the Vermeer masterpiece achieves fuller dimension in each tale as small details of color, brush stroke, lighting, background, serve to create the picture in the reader's eye. Only the opening story disappoints; it seems staged rather than psychologically compelling. The remaining entries are elegantly executed; the characters have the solidity and the elusive mystery of Vermeer's subjects. There is suspense, as well; one wants to read these tales at one sitting, to discover how the Vermeer influenced everyone who possessed it. Vreeland paints her canvas with the sure strokes of a talented artist. Agent, Barbara Braun. Rights sold in Germany to Heyne Verlag. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
As Keats describes the scenes and lives frozen in a moment of time on his Grecian urn, so Vreeland layers moments in the lives of eight people profoundly moved and changed by a Vermeer painting a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Vreeland opens with a man who suffers through his adoration of the painting because he inherited it from his Nazi father, who stole it from a deported Jewish family. She traces the work's provenance through the centuries: the farmer's wife, the Bohemian student, the loving husband with a secret and, finally, the Girl herself Vermeer's eldest daughter, who felt her "self" obliterated by the self immortalized in paint, but accepted that this was the nature of art. Descriptions of the painting by people in different countries in various historical periods are particularly beautiful. Each section is read by a different narrator, some better than others. Several add dimension to the story and writing, while others are so intent on portraying the book's ethereal qualities they make the listener conscious of the reader instead of the language. Still, this is a delightful production. Based on the MacMurray & Beck hardcover (Forecasts, July 12, 1999). (Dec. 2001) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The painting of the girl dressed in blue, gazing ahead with wondrous innocence, sewing forgotten on her lap, is truly an artistic masterpiece. Did the renowned Dutch artist Jan Vermeer actually paint it? By way of answering this question, Vreeland traces Girl in Hyacinth Blue from its ownership in the late twentieth century to the very moment of its creation more than three hundred years earlier. Each chapter is a story unto itself, bound together by the elusive beauty of the painting. There is the heartbreaking story of young Hannah, a Jewish girl who watches her life dissolve in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. This tale is followed by the bittersweet reflections of a middle-aged father, who watches his daughter glow in love. Then readers are treated to a hilarious depiction of a French woman and her dalliance in the Dutch country she hated. The reader also is caught in the spell of the mysterious girl of the painting, until at last Vreeland reveals the real girl with her own true story. This is not a quick read. The language is so elegant, the descriptions so evocative, and the characters so perfectly sketched that not one beautiful sentence can be rushed. Teachers and librarians working with older teens might find several ways to use this book, as it is equally art appreciation, historical fiction, and excellent literature. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 1999, MacMurray & Beck, 242p, $17.50. Ages 16 to Adult. Reviewer: Diane Masla
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
"Pearls were a favorite item of Vermeer," observes Cornelius Engelbrecht, the secretive and obsessive professor whose conviction that he owns an authentic Vermeer launches Vreeland's lovely first novel. The painting, we soon discover, was taken from its proper (Jewish) owner by Engelbrecht's father, a German soldier during World War II--a fact that Engelbrecht struggles mightily to suppress. The one colleague to whom he shows the painting guesses the truth and derisively recommends that he burn it--"one good burning deserves another"--but we don't learn the fate of the painting. Instead, Vreeland constructs a series of vignettes, not necessarily chronological, that takes us from the rooftops of Amsterdam Jews forced to kill the pigeons they are no longer allowed to keep, to a Dutch merchant whose possession of the painting briefly complicates his marriage, to the boudoir of a French counsel's bored wife and the second story of a farmhouse in flooded Holland, and finally to the home of Vermeer himself, where art does battle with domestic necessity. Though the connections among the vignettes could be made clearer, and the ending feels abrupt--how did that painting get from the artist to the weary professor, and what finally happens to it?--each vignette has the stillness, the polish, and the balanced perfection of a Vermeer. Not quite perfect, but definitely a pearl. Griet, the "girl with the pearl earring," may be a pearl herself--fair, soberminded, and gentle--but the novel in which we find her is not quite so polished. Chevalier (The Virgin Blue) writes a little plainly of her heroine, forced when her father is blinded in an accident to work as a maid in the home of Vermeer. Eventually, Vermeer asks her to pose for a painting--wearing his wife's earrings--which causes a scandal and Griet's determined departure from the household. The artist's coaxing of the reluctant sitter is delicately rendered, but otherwise this text fails to ignite.--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Vreeland's novel possesses the strength of its subject. Each of the eight chapters focuses on a small painting by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master, who produced quiet paintings with exquisite color and subtlety... "In the end," the narrator notes, "it's only the moments that we have." But what exquisite moments they are in this thoughtful book.
The Christian Science Monitor
Vreeland's wonderful second outing (What Love Sees, 1996, not seen) is a novel made of stories, each delving farther into the provenance of a Vermeer painting, and each capturing a moment of life, much as the great painter did himself. The only wobble in this elegant little book is at the start, where a stiffness in character may be intended but jars even so: a high-school math teacher confides to a colleague that he owns (and adores) a paintingof a girl sewing at a windowthat he knows is a Vermeer. All the evidenceof technique, color, subjectis there, yet the painting lacks documentation to validate its authenticity: nor will the math teacher, one Cornelius Engelbrecht, tell just how it became his. The reader is more privileged, though, and learns quickly enough that Engelbrecht's Nazi father stole it in 1940 from a doomed Jewish family in Amsterdam. Such reader-privilege becomes an overwhelming emotional test when Vreeland goes back to visit that family, in that year, just before the theft ("A Night Different From All Other Nights"). Farther back still, a happily married Dutch couple owns the paintingand when the husband admits that the girl in it reminds him of an earlier lover, the marriage is briefly shaken ("Adagia"). Set when Beethoven's Eroica symphony is "new," "Hyacinth Blues" offers a biting bit of social satireand lets the reader discover just how the painting's papers did in fact get lost. Still deeper back goes Vreeland, taking up with masterful insight, feeling, and control the life of a small Dutch farm family caught in the great flood of 1717; of a young engineer who loves, loses (pathetically), and hands on the painting; ofVermeer himself as he paints the picture, struggling against debt, father of 11; and, in a wondrous, bittersweet epiphany, of the daughter herself whom Vermeer chose as his model. Extraordinarily skilled historical fiction: deft, perceptive, full of learning, deeply moving.
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 colours, 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 centre, 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 he died. During a winter's first snowfall, just like this."
Cornelius had a face I'd always associated with Piero 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 lite a fire. "I don't usually have guests," he explained, and directed me to sit in the one easy chair, plum-coloured 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-coloured 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 favourite 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.