Susan Vreeland Girl in Hyacinth Blue

ISBN 13: 9781565115446

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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9781565115446: Girl in Hyacinth Blue
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Picture this: "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." Susan Vreeland imagined just such a humble domestic scene, suggested it was created in 17th-century Holland, and attributed it to Jan Vermeer. Then she wrote a beguiling novel about this canvas, which so closely resembles the 35 extant works of the Dutch master that it might as well be one of his--long, lost, finally found, and as exquisite as ever. The artistic journey Vreeland recounts begins in present-day Pennsylvania, where a schoolteacher claims he owns an authentic Vermeer, a legacy from his late father, who acquired it under heinous circumstances: a Nazi officer, the father had looted it from the home of Dutch Jews.

Moving back in time and across the Atlantic, Vreeland traces the treasured painting from owner to owner. In doing so, she demonstrates the enduring power of art in the face of natural disaster, political upheaval, and personal turmoil. Ultimately, she ends the odyssey in Delft, where the painting's haunting subject is identified and tells her own poignant story about the picture's origins.

Each of the eight linked chapters has an irresistible painterly quality--finely wrought, artfully illuminated, and subtly executed. Together, they constitute a literary masterpiece, one that the New York Times Book Review praised as "intelligent, searching, and unusual... filled with luminous moments; like the painting it describes so well."

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Review:

There are only 35 known Vermeers extant in the world today. In Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland posits the existence of a 36th. The story begins at a private boys' academy in Pennsylvania where, in the wake of a faculty member's unexpected death, math teacher Cornelius Engelbrecht makes a surprising revelation to one of his colleagues. He has, he claims, an authentic Vermeer 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." His colleague, an art teacher, is skeptical and though the technique and subject matter are persuasively Vermeer-like, Engelbrecht can offer no hard evidence--no appraisal, no papers--to support his claim. He says only that his father, "who always had a quick eye for fine art, picked it up, let us say, at an advantageous moment." Eventually it is revealed that Engelbrecht's father was a Nazi in charge of rounding up Dutch Jews for deportation and that the picture was looted from one doomed family's home:

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.
By the end of "Love Enough," this first of eight interrelated stories tracing the history of "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," the painting's fate at the hands of guilt-riddled Engelbrecht fils is in question. Unfortunately, there is no doubt about the probable destiny of the previous owners, the Vredenburg family of Rotterdam, who take center stage in the powerful "A Night Different From All Other Nights." Vreeland handles this tale with subtlety and restraint, setting it at Passover, the year before the looting, and choosing to focus on the adolescent Hannah Vredenburg's difficult passage into adulthood in the face of an uncertain future. In the next story, "Adagia," she moves even further into the past to sketch "how love builds itself unconsciously ... out of the momentous ordinary" in a tender portrait of a longtime marriage. Back and back Vreeland goes, back through other owners, other histories, to the very inception of the painting in the homely, everyday objects of the Vermeer household--a daughter's glass of milk, a son's shirt in need of buttons, a wife's beloved sewing basket--"the unacknowledged acts of women to hallow home." Girl in Hyacinth Blue ends with the painting's subject herself, Vermeer's daughter Magdalena, who first sends the portrait out into the world as payment for a family debt, then sees it again, years later at an auction.
She thought of all the people in all the paintings she had seen that day, not just Father's, in all the paintings of the world, in fact. Their eyes, the particular turn of a head, their loneliness or suffering or grief was borrowed by an artist to be seen by other people throughout the years who would never see them face to face. People who would be that close to her, she thought, a matter of a few arms' lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her.
In this final passage, Susan Vreeland might be describing her own masterpiece as well as Vermeer's. --Alix Wilber

From the Author:

That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single individual, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, has always filled me with wonder. Sometimes in museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a finely wrought medieval manuscript toiled over by a nameless monk, or a primitive tool with a humorously carved handle, I am moved to tears. The unknown life of its maker is so brief, but the work of his or her hands and heart remains.

The territory for this book is The Netherlands, as well as the spiritual territory of my love for painting and for lives lived in other eras. I bear a Dutch name, and there's a small town in North Holland named Vreeland. More than that I did not have, but I could read, and thus could imagine my way into a heritage and feel some sense of personal origins in the world. Combining these elements, much like a painter designs a composition, resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780140296280: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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ISBN 10:  014029628X ISBN 13:  9780140296280
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2000
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9781878448903: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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9780755305308: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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9780965201735: Girl in Hyacinth Blue

See notes, 1999
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