A Few Thoughts on Susan Vreeland's
Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Denver: CO: MacMurray & Beck, 1999)
I just finished reading Susan Vreeland's novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue. It is intriguing. The centerpiece of the story is a painting by the same name. I was completely drawn in by the story and its many twists and turns. I needed to keep reading to find out HOW each character came to own the painting and how it influenced the lives of its owners. The plot begins in the present and spirals through history to the painting's mid-17th-century origination in Delft, a small town in the Netherlands.
The novel is a series of eight story-chapters about how people in Amsterdam came to posses the painting called Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The novel starts in the present when an aloof math teacher confides in a colleague, an art teacher, about a painting that he owns. He suspects that the painting might be an original by 17th century Dutch artist, Vermeer. The modern characters know that, in reality, there may be as few as thirty-five Vermeers in existence. The math teacher, Cornelius Engelbrecht, sequesters this painting in a securely locked study. No one can know that he has it. His father, of German descent, "selected" this painting from the home of wealthy Dutch Jews during the Holocaust. It was his father's job to take the Jews to the trains. Cornelius inherited the painting upon his father's death and has hidden his "possession" for decades. As much as he covets this magnificent piece of art, he is in constant turmoil about how his father secured the painting.
It is in this first chapter that Vreeland introduces the reader to artistic language and description. Cornelius describes how the artist highlights the direction of the brush's strokes, tiny grooves of brush hairs, overlapping layers of paint no thicker than silk thread that give minute differences in shade. Colors are described as raw umber, ultramarine, Venetian red, pale cerulean, and mixed white lead. The delineation of the casts of shadow and the use of the "honey colored light" all add to the artistic elements, and thus enhance the reality of the plot. The reader begins to "see" the painting. As the novel slips into the past with subsequent chapters, each owner of the painting is enamored by its beauty, its simplicity, its wonderful artistry. Each owner relinquishes the painting only as a last resort because of significant family or historical consequences.
This is a book that is written for an adult or mature young adult reader. It is highly readable, historically significant, and aesthetically satisfying. The image of a Girl in Hyacinth Blue truly, beautifully, lingers in the imagination of the reader long after the book has been finished.Reference Citation: Broughton, Linda. (2000) "A Few Thoughts on Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 3, Page 19.