Have you ever heard about the artist Johannes Vermeer? Me neither, until I took an art history course that was used to teach grammar. I was introduced to Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, and Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Girl in Hyacinth BlueBoth books are based on the artist.
Not much is known about Johannes Vermeer. But authors have written stories about him, based on the little they know about him, and what life was like in Delft in the 1660s for someone in his position.
All images in the post are clickable!
Below, you’ll find my thoughts on Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. Although Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, and Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier are based on Johannes Vermeer, the stories are very different. And both books are worth the read.
Have you read?
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Book Review
What is Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland About?
In Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, the star in the story is a Johannes Vermeer painting. After Dean Merrill’s funeral, a few colleagues from the mathematics department are talking, and at some point, the conversation moves to last words spoken. Cornelius Engelbrecht, mutters, “An eye like a blue pearl,” the last words that his father spoke. Usually a loner, the day brings back memories of his father, whom he buried years ago, on a day like this one.
Cornelius invites one of his colleagues, Richard, to his home because he wants to show him something. Cornelius surprises his colleague with the invitation because he isn’t a talkative person or is he friendly toward those with whom he works. At his apartment, he shows Richard an unsigned painting that is in the style of Johannes Vermeer.
Although the painting looks like a Vermeer, Richard knows that neither he nor his colleague could ever afford such a painting on their teacher’s salary, and they did not inherit wealth from their parents. And there is no provenance to authenticate the painting.
For a math teacher, Cornelius knows an awful lot about Johannes Vermeer and his paintings, and tries to convince Richard that the painting is an authentic Vermeer. He doesn’t want Richard to tell anyone about what he has seen. As the story unfolds, we learn that Cornelius’ father, Otto, stole the painting from a Jewish family when the Germans were rounding up the Jews in Holland to send them to concentration camps.
Otto has never taken responsibility for what he did, even on his deathbed. As far as he is concerned, all he did was take Jewish families to the train, and whatever happened to them after that isn’t his concern. Cornelius is ashamed of his father, and wants to burn the painting, but the painting captivates those who view it – the eyes of the girl in it are like blue pearls.
Cornelius shows Richard the painting again, and in a moment of weakness, he tells the story of what his father did years ago. Richard is horrified and leaves quickly, dreading what he will say to his colleague when he sees him next. The reader doesn’t see the next encounter between colleagues, but the author uses an unusual technique of telling the story in reverse chronology. And she is not using flashbacks, this is something different.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland has many vignettes centered on the painting and its movement. The reader is taken on a journey with the painting, its owners and their lives, back in time to the 17thCentury when Johannes Vermeer is painting his daughter. The painting survives three and a half centuries.
In one of the vignettes, Laurens and Digna are chaperoning their daughter, Johanna and Fritz while they are on a walk. Johanna recently got engaged and her mother wants to give her something special. Funds are a bit tight, so she decides to give her a painting that her husband gave her on a special occasion. Laurens is strongly against giving away the painting, and when Digna inquires why, she learns that the woman in the painting reminds her husband of Tanneke, an old girlfriend. Can you imagine your husband giving you a painting for a gift because the model reminds him of an ex? As can be expected, Digna is very upset about the revelation, and it upsets the marriage. But at the end, they could be alright, but we are not sure.
Girl in Hyacinth BlueGirl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel
A baby is placed in a boat during a flood, and there is a note with the painting instructing whoever finds the child to sell the artwork and use the proceeds to take care of him. Stijn, a farmer, finds the child all bundled up and takes him to his wife Saskia, who grows fond of both the child and painting. Things are financially difficult because of the flood, which prevents Stijn from planting his crops.
Saskia refuses to sell the painting because it is so mesmerizing, and she commits the ultimate sin of using produce that are supposed to be used as seed. She gets estimates for the Vermeer painting and they are more than she anticipated. There is tension between her and Stijn because of financial hardship. She goes to her mother with her two children and the baby. Saskia relates all that has happened, but her mother doesn’t agree with her. The mother reminds Saskia that people are more important than possession so she should sell the painting so the family can eat. The baby is the blessing, not the painting.
In yet another vignette, as was the custom at the time, Claudine’s father chose Gerard to be her husband. She doesn’t love Gerard, but she loves the painting that he buys her. Claudine isn’t able to have children, which makes her husband very irritable. Gerard tells her that the painting is by a minor artist, Johannes van der Meer, but that doesn’t matter to her because she claims the girl in the painting will all her heart. Claudine plans a party and invites some musicians to play.
During the evening of the party, she decides to have a dalliance with Monsieur le C. She tells him that she has a lovely painting that she wants him to see, takes his hand and leads him to the drawing room. While there, the two start to kiss and explore each other’s body, but they hear sounds and realize that they are not the only ones in the room. She strikes a match and discovers Gerard with Countess Maurits.
This incident gives Claudine the reason she needs to return from Holland to her beloved France. Thinking on her feet, she goes to get her husband’s lover, Agatha van Solms, to witness Gerard’s infidelity. The night turns out to be an eventful one, and Gerard is furious because Claudine compromises him.
The following morning she decides to return to France right away, and doesn’t want to wait to receive funds from her father for her travel, which will take two weeks. She decides to sell her painting, but the provenance is locked away in Gerard’s safe. This vignette is important because the reader learns why the painting doesn’t have its authentication.
Final Thoughts on Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
There are many little stories within Girl in Hyacinth Blue to entertain the reader, and Susan Vreeland knows how to keep you engaged. I learned about the book while taking Critical Reading and Writing, and I really enjoyed the storyline. It was the first time that I had heard of Johannes Vermeer, are you familiar with him?
Books by Susan Vreeland
Girl in Hyacinth BlueLisette’s List: A NovelLuncheon of the Boating PartyThe Forest LoverClara and Mr. Tiffany: A NovelThe Passion of Artemisia: A NovelLife Studies: StoriesWhat Love SeesClara and Mr. Tiffany Publisher: Random HouseWhat English Teachers Want
Filed Under: Book Summary and Review, Self-improvement, SummareviewTagged With: Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, Johannes Vermeer, Susan Vreeland
Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Vreeland)
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Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Susan Vreeland, 1999
Penguin Group USA
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 masterthat 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." (From the publisher.)