Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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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 Vermeer—but 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, ...

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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 Vermeer—but 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
Elaine Szewczyk
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
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.
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.
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)

Library Journal
"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.
Ron Charles
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
Kirkus Reviews
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 painting—of a girl sewing at a window—that he knows is a Vermeer. All the evidence—of technique, color, subject—is 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 painting—and 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 satire—and 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140296280
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 172,649
  • Product dimensions: 7.20 (w) x 4.52 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Vreeland

SUSAN VREELAND grew up in California and taught high-school English in the San Diego school system for 30 years. She wrote a widely used student-writing handbook titled What English Teachers Want, as well as two previous novels. Her short fiction has appeard in several literary journals, and she received Inkwell Magazine's Grand Prize for Fiction in 1999. She lives in San Diego.

GIGI BERMINGHAM is an accomplished stage and television actress, with several audiobooks to her credit.

J. D. CULLUM has appeared in over 40 plays both on and Off-Broady. TV and film work include 24, Frasier, Judging Amy, MYPD Blue and the HBO film *61.

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    1. Hometown:
      San Diego, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 20, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Racine, Wisconsin
    1. Education:
      San Diego State University
    2. Website:

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.

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Table of Contents

Love Enough 1
A Night Different From All Other Nights 36
Adagia 60
Hyacinth Blues 82
Morningshine 109
From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers 155
Still Life 198
Magdalena Looking 224
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Interviews & Essays

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.

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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.


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."
—John Dufresne

"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


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.


  • What does Girl in Hyacinth Blue suggest about the value, both personal and monetary, and the function and purpose of art?
  • Why would the author structure the novel in reverse chronology? What are the advantages or disadvantages of telling the story this way?
  • Discuss the different ways in which the painting—the girl—spoke to her numerous owners. Did the men view her differently than the women? Why do they all adore—need—the girl in the painting so much? Does it provide for them something that is missing from their daily lives? Whose life did the painting affect the most?
  • What does the book have to say about the joys and difficulties of being an artist? On page 204, Vermeer speaks of the "the cost" of his painting to his household. Is it worth it? Why, so often, is an artist's genius recognized only after he or she has died?
  • Is there a piece of art that affects you in a special way? Elaborate.
  • Do you think Magdalena should have introduced herself to the couple who bought the painting? Is it better not to know the subject of a painting too closely?
  • While reading this book, did you imagine your own version of the painting? If so, describe it.
  • What do you think happened to the painting? Is Cornelius capable of destroying the painting or relinquishing it? Is he a failed human being or is he capable of redemption? Is the pictures rightful place in a museum?
  • Discuss the range and significance of the last line of the book.
  • In the end, does it matter whether or not the painting is a Vermeer?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 67 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 67 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2008

    A reviewer

    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.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2001

    Beautifully crafted novel

    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.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2001

    As appealing as a bowl of hyacinths

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2000

    Fascinating and unique!!!

    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!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2013

    Owners of a painting in reverse

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 3, 2012

    I loved this book and the concept of following a piece of art th

    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".

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2012

    Just ok

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 3, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Definately recommend

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2012

    This is a very good book and I recommend that it should be 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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 18, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" More Than Painterly Prose

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2014



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  • Posted October 4, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Vreeland at her veritable best!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2014

    To arcticstar

    Go to camp!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2014



    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2014


    Firebloom hurries in, gathering a bunch of moss. Once she had enough, she brought it over to the river, soaking the moss balls in water. She pulls them out, holding the moss in her teeth, then dashes back to camp.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2014


    Races to res 23

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2014


    Nevermind im back. "Im BACK!" She squeaked. "Hey Freypaw, turn that frown upside down! Lets look at the good side of the fire: it warms a cold heart, thats why i like it" she mewed cheerfully.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2014

    Ice and Flame

    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."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2014


    Padded in

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2014

    SpiritPool and Co.

    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.

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