Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Susan Vreeland

Published by MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 1999
ISBN 10: 1878448900 / ISBN 13: 9781878448903
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Synopsis: A Dutch painting of a young girl, possibly a Vermeer, survives three and a half centuries through loss, flood, anonymity, secrecy, theft, even the Holocaust. This is the story of its sometimes desperate owners whose lives are influenced by its seductive beauty and mystery, and whose defining moments take place in its presence. Despite their unsatisfied longings, their own and others' flaws, the girl in hyacinth blue has the power to generate love in all its human variety.

The German-American son of the Nazi who looted it from a Jewish home in Amsterdam in 1942, hides it out of shame for his father's atrocities, loves it with awe and passion, wrestles with moral questions of unlawful ownership and his own responsibilities of penance and restitution, and, like his father, ultimately fails as a human being.

The rest of the eight stories which make up this composite novel move back in time to the Renaissance. In each episode, the painting figures in casual affairs, natural catastrophe, flawed marriages, domestic violence, a murder, a hanging, yet in spite of these dreary circumstances, the power of beauty and art elevates the characters in individual, subtle ways.

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

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing
Publication Date: 1999
Book Condition: Fair

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