GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE
In eight quasi-connected stories, Susan Vreeland delivers a fictional lesson on aesthetics. Set amidst human sorrow and historic chaos, the narrative follows an imagined Vermeer painting from the present day through 330 years of its provenance–beginning with its willful destruction in the 1990s and concluding with its inspired creation in the 1660s:
Chapter 1. 1995(?): in Pennsylvania, math teacher Cornelius Englebrecht burns the painting in his fireplace; 1942: in Amsterdam, from the Vredenburg home, German soldier Otto Engelbrecht loots the painting, hides it, and absconds with it to America.
Chapter 2. 1940: in Amsterdam, diamond merchant Sol Vredenburg buys the painting for his daughter Hannah as a gift for her 11th birthday.
Chapter 3. 1899: in Vreeland, engineer Laurens van Luyken, having originally purchased the picture as an anniversary gift for his wife, decides to give it to his daughter Johanna, engaged to the Amsterdamer Fritz.
Chapter 4. 1803: in The Hague, French aristocrat Gerard buys the painting from a Dutch noble; wife Claudine absconds with and sells it, without the documents attesting to its authenticity.
Chapter 5. 1717-18: from the floodwaters of Delfzijl, scholar Adriaan Kuypers flees with the painting to Oling where he relinquishes it to the farmer’s wife, Saskia, who sells it to a dealer in Amsterdam.
Chapter 6. 1717: in Delfzijl, Aunt Rika, wife of a slave trader, offers the painting as a bribe to her nephew Adriaan to hide the evidence of his bastard child and keep her name respectable.
Chapter 7. 1665-8: in Delft, Vermeer begins and completes the painting of his daughter Magdelena.
Chapter 8. 1675: in Delft, Vermeer dies, and after his death his daughter Magdelena sells the painting to the local baker; later, in Amsterdam in 1696, Magdelena observes a nice family buying the painting at auction.
Topics For Discussion
1. The plot summary reveals that much of the picture’s provenance remains unknown. Why do you think Vreeland leaves blank so much of the picture’s history? Where do you imagine the painting was, say, between 1803 and 1890? Why do you think Vreeland places the painting in periods of history reflecting so many atrocities? What would have been gained–or lost–from this novel had the author placed the picture in more heroic moments of human history?
2. For many readers the chapters seem uneven in quality. Which chapters seem to you more/less successful than the others? Can you say why some fail to work as well as others?
3. The original title for the opening chapter was Love Burning. What additional textual evidence exists to affirm the painting’s destruction by Cornelius? Do you think that Cornelius makes a morally correct decision when he burns the picture? Do you think that Richard ought to have stepped in to save it?
4. In A Night Different From All Other Nights, Hannah slaughters the family’s pet pigeons. Why and for whom does Hannah destroy these pets? How is the death of the pigeons related to the Amsterdam setting? In what way is the family’s celebration of Passover relevant to this story? Would a different Jewish holiday, say Chanukah, have had the same symbolic value?
5. Why do you think that Digna sews samplers, in Adagia, embedded with quotations by Erasmus? You might want to discuss Erasmus, and the part this Dutch Renaissance humanist plays in the drama going on between this 19th century husband and wife?
6. The Hyacinth Blue chapter is written in the first person and in a vastly different style from that of the other chapters. Authors often use the first person point of view to expose an unreliable narrator. In what way is Claudine’s account of these events unreliable? In other words, what part or parts of the story does she fail to understand? Why do you think that Vreeland chose to tell Claudine’s story from that character’s limited point of view?
7. In the Morningshine chapter, Saskia and Stign have an unsatisfying marriage. Indeed, unhappy marriages and unpromising couples seem to be the norm in this book. What, according to Vreeland, constitutes an unhappy union?
8. Why is scholarly Adriaan Kuypers, in the Personal Papers chapter, attracted to superstitious Aletta Pieters? Does Aletta’s family history help to explain her irrational behavior?
9. The concluding Magdelena Looking chapter traces the painting’s subject from her wistful 14th year (when she wishes her father would paint her) to her melancholic middle age. In it, we learn that following her father’s death, Magdelena marries an unimaginative saddler, moves to Amsterdam, and ends up childless. What does this sad story contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the painting?
10. Magdelena sells the painting for over 300 gilders. Saskia sells it for 75 gilders. Claudine sells it for 24 gilders. Today, the picture would be sold for several hundred million gilders. Given these discrepancies, what do you think Vreeland is suggesting about the monetary value of art?
The novel opens in the present day when Cornelius Engelbrecht, a lonely math teacher, invites one of his colleagues from the art department to see a painting he has kept secret for decades.
Though he insists it’s an authentic Vermeer, a painting ready to rock the art world, he explains vaguely, I prefer it not be known. Security risks. I just wanted you to see it, because you can appreciate it.
The art teacher leaves unconvinced, and Cornelius’s dreadful paradox is unresolved. He’s spent decades worshipping the painting and enduring the guilt that stains it since he first learned his father stole it from Jews he helped deport from the Netherlands.
As he stares at the girl in blue, the narrator explains, The one thing he craved, to be believed, struck at odds with the thing he most feared, to be linked by blood with his century’s supreme cruelty. He’d have to risk exposure for the pure pleasure of delighting with another … in the luminescence of her eye.
From this haunting first chapter, the book moves backward in time to the previous owners of the painting. In each new house, all the way back to Vermeer’s, it assumes a new meaning.
For little Hannah in Amsterdam, the girl in the blue dress is a model of pensive contemplation amid the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Hannah is burdened with a profound sense that she and her family are living, as Emily Dickinson put it, between the heaves of storm. In this stunning chapter, nothing more violent than the death of a pigeon takes place, but the horizon glows with horror.
Further back, the painting belonged to a man who loved it as a memory of the love he foolishly lost. For an earlier owner, it’s an emblem of the daughter she cannot bear.
Caught in what Vreeland calls the excruciating complexities of life, each owner relinquishes the Vermeer only as a last resort. One desperate young man wraps his newborn son with the painting and leaves it on a boat near a flooded house. The note reads, Sell the painting. Feed the baby.
Vreeland’s study of Girl in Hyacinth Blue illuminates the hopes and fears we invest in beautiful objects. In the end, the narrator notes, it’s only the moments that we have. But what exquisite moments they are in this thoughtful book.
Girl In Hyacinth Blue – How different owners express feelings toward art
Art renders the extraordinary brilliance of peoples’ lives. Susan Vreeland’s lovely Girl in Hyacinth Blue brings together an artfully constructed reversed chronological novel. A kind of contemporary hiding-place of a painting credited to Vermeer all the way back to the moment the work was fathered. The purpose of art is to provide a sense of grace and fulfillment to the heart and soul. Vermeer’s paintings speak so powerfully, nearly four centuries after their creation, of the mysteries of character and time and of the unimportant details that make up a life. Delicate affections toward sentimental values may be arduous to allow betrayal; not only women enjoy the soft spots of art.
Haughty feelings toward sentimental values may be difficult to allow confer. A math teacher, Cornelius Engelbrecht supposedly burns the painting in his fire place. “Embarrassed by his father’s hovering nervousness whenever he brought home a school friend.” (pg. 13) Despite his embarrasment, had he have the will to burn the painting or relinquish it? Perhaps, he could have burned it for the reason that the painting brought about painful memories. 1942, in Amsterdam German soldier Otto Engelbrecht loots the painting, hides it, and then escapes with it to America; bringing his son painful memories in the future. Although this could be the case, he could have relinquished it or destroyed it; this could be debated further because Cornelius knew that destroying the painting, would be burning a hole in his heart and soul; on the other hand relinquishing it, would bring the forever lasting disdain. In Vreeland, Laurens van Luyken, originally purchased the painting as an anniversary gift for his wife, but is hesitant, “‘No.’ ‘ Why not the painting?’ ‘Because I gave it to you.’ ‘But it would be a touch of our home in theirs.’ ‘I wouldn’t want to be without it.’” (pg. 65) to give it to his daughter Johanna, who is engaged to the Amsterdamer Fritz. The value doesn’t necessarily have to be something that is “rich,” it can also be sentimentally valued to the heart and soul.
Humanity does not want to confer such beauty unless they are monetarily deficient, even then trying their hardest to take hold of their sentiment. As people become more monetarily deficient, it gives them more of a sense of want for priceless possessions. A student named Adriaan Kuypers disappears with the painting to Oling where he gives it up to the farmer’s wife, Saskia, who sells it to a dealer in Amsterdam. “As for the painting, she had hung it on a clothes peg to get it out of the way. In the evenings she hung clothes in front of it, so Stijin might not be reminded, but in the day she uncovered it… ‘Morningshine’ she called it … only if she could keep the painting.” (pg. 121) Saskia, wanting the painting, had no choice but to sell it because of her husband and her monetary problems. “So the next time I saw Aletta crying in front of the painting, I sat beside her and studied it, trying to understand how something so beautiful could grieve her. The tenderness of the girl’s face showed it was painted with intimacy and love- qualities missing.” Obviously, Adriaan is feeling not loved enough, the painting which gives him few. “I asked her what had made her cry. Papa said she had eyes like that, like pale blue moons, and hair like hers, that golden brown color, only in braids. She died when I was born.” (pg. 161) Aletta is missing a whole lot in her life, caused by the death of her birth giver. “Was it possible to paint with good conscience what he didn’t understand? What he didn’t even know? The face, not beautiful; the expression charged yet under containment – for him, he believed. To render it with honesty rather than pride or even mere love, to go beyond the painting of known sentiment into mystery – that was her challenge to him.” In Delft, Vermeer begins and completes the painting of his daughter Magdelena, “the face, not beautiful… for him [Vermeer], he believed.” (pg. 221) which he apparently paints beautifully. In Delft, Vermeer dies, and after his death, his daughter Magdelena sells the painting to the local baker to cover debts; later, in Amsterdam in 1696, Magdelena sees a nice family buying the painting at an auction. She is very saddened to see someone take her childhood, also feeling sorry for the baker, whom lost most of his money at the auction.
The painting reflected most upon the women; although if the ratio of men to women was greater, there would be a greater probability of the same affections toward the piece of art. Hannah for example was very enthusiastic about the painting, perhaps because it was just so subtle and innocent. Men such as Saskia’s husband didn’t care much for the painting, he just wanted to sell it to get money; “It’ll fetch five guilders surely.” (pg. 127) it didn’t have any sentimental value to him. On the other hand I am being hippocratic by saying that the men didn’t value the art. Laurens van Luyken for example loved the painting so much; his wife liked it, but apparently not enough to keep her from wanting to give it to her daughter who is engaged to the Amsterdamer Fritz. They all needed the painting very much because it was something they didn’t have like the witch that Adrian was married to. The painting reminded her of her mother and how she always wanted to see and know her. Both men and women had feelings about the painting, to get it out of their lives, or to forever keep it to touch their soul. Women like Saskia and men like Cornelius didn’t want to let go of the painting within their souls. Everyone had a reason, to do whatever was needed.
The value of art is to render the extraordinary brilliance of peoples’ lives; to relate to the lives of others in the society. The unique purpose of art is to provide an exhilarating touch of love, sorrow, warmth, depth, and happiness to the soul and heart. The value of art, both personal and monetary; the hard work of great art is very self- rewarding and gives a great sense of accomplishment. Monetarily speaking, an artist such as Vermeer must paint in order to make a living and support his family of 11 children, “And there were other debts.” (pg. 209) Overall, the book describes the soul purpose of art to provide love, sorrow, warmth, depth and happiness to the soul and heart. The monetary wing is also very important because many of the owners had to sell the painting; no matter how much they treasured the painting, they still had to sell it because of monetary problems to keep them on their “feet.”
Elevated feelings toward emotional values may be difficult to let go of. Susan Vreeland’s ravishing novel reveals the true owner, tracing proprietors from the present to the past. The painting symbolizes something that each owner is missing in his or her life, whether it was personally or monetarily. Vermeer’s painting had a great affect on all the owners because something was missing in his or her life and the painting filled that hole. The last thing humanity would want to do, is let away fragments of their life for monetary reasons. Personal emotions are stronger than monetary rationalizations.