Girl in Hyacinth Blueby Susan Vreeland
This luminous story begins in the present day, when a professor invites a colleague to his home to see a painting that he has kept secret for decades. The professor swears it is a Vermeerbut why has he hidden this important work for so long? The reasons unfold in a series of events that trace the ownership of the painting back to World War II and Amsterdam, and still further back to the moment of the work's inspiration. As the painting moves through each owner's hands, what was long hidden quietly surfaces, illuminating poignant moments in multiple lives. Susan Vreeland's characters remind us, through their love of this mysterious painting, how beauty transforms and why we reach for it, what lasts and what in our lives is singular and unforgettable.
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
The Christian Science Monitor
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 7.20(w) x 4.52(h) x 0.80(d)
- Age Range:
- 7 - 10 Years
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.
Meet the Author
- San Diego, California
- Date of Birth:
- January 20, 1946
- Place of Birth:
- Racine, Wisconsin
- San Diego State University
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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.
I'm a big fan of historical fiction and Susan Vreeland's rendering of same, so I was probably of a mindset to love this novel before I turned to page one. It didn't disappoint. If one is a lover of the works of the ancient art master Vermeer, one cannot help but be captivated by this author's imagined and highly creative way of bringing the artist as well as his works to life. Definitely a five star read.
Ice ran out of the bush, grabbing EveningKit by the scruff. "You are gonna get your self killed!" She shouts, her voice muffled by the kit's fur. She ushes the two figures safley into the bush, not caring who they were, just wanting no ine to die tonight.<p> FlameWind strokes LittleKit's head with her tail, bringing him and EveningKit into the nest to keep warm. "Thank you, SpiritPool."
Ok...I have to go to bed. Anyways, from tommorow until next Saturday, I will not be on. Skyleaf is in charge until ArticStar gets back. Please tell him I went on vacay.) SpiritPool curled up on the ground, eyelids fluttering. Soon, she was on the verge of sleep. Then, she began to sleep. <p> StormCloud curled up, warm and cozy. He drifted off to sleep.
Nothing astounding here but it was an interesting take on a history of a painting. I enjoyed the different perspectives. I wish the suthor would've have went into more depth in most of the stories. More details for me would be needed to give this a 5 star rating. But overall good and interesting.