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Girl in Hyacinth Blue

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A professor invites a colleague from the art department to his home to view a painting he has kept secret for decades in Susan Vreeland's powerful historical novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The professor swears it's a Vermeer -- but why exactly has he kept it hidden so long? The reasons unfold in a gripping sequence of stories that trace ownership of the work back to Amsterdam during World War II and still further to the moment of the painting's inception.

242 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Susan Vreeland

18 books1,052 followers
Susan Vreeland was an internationally renowned best-selling author and four-time winner of the Theodor Geisel Award for Fiction, the San Diego Book Award’s highest honor. She wrote historical fiction on art-related themes, and her books have been translated into 26 languages.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,128 reviews
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
August 2, 2018
”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.”

 photo Vermeer_zps4fed97f2.jpg
Johannes Vermeer self-portrait cropped from his painting The Procuress (1656).

Johannes Vermeer or Van Der Meer was a 17th century Dutch painter who had a modestly successful career. He would have been more successful, made more money, enjoyed a certain level of comfort if only…

he would paint faster.

He did not paint until the mood struck him, commissions were bothersome, rarely of interest. His life was about light and how to capture that light perfectly for all eternity in the pigment of his paint. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few of his paintings in museums across Europe. Every time I’m struck by each and every poetic brush stroke he made to the luminosity of natural light seemingly only to be able to be perceived by the eye of Vermeer in the city of Delft.

He traded paintings for food, for shoes for his children, for debts that accumulated as he pondered the subject for his next painting.

 photo Vermeer_The_concert_zpsc6fc5050.jpg
The Concert by Vermeer...absconded with.

There are sixty-six potential Vermeer’s in the world, but only thirty-four are universally recognized as accredited Johannes Vermeer paintings. In 1990 The Concert was stolen from a museum in Boston and has never been recovered. Valued in the neighborhood of $200,000,000 it is the most valuable unrecovered painting in history. We can hope that it landed in the hands of a collector, who is selfishly hoarding it hopefully in a climate controlled environment. Someday the collector will die and the painting will reemerge.

We can hope.

 photo Astronomer_zps33c3c868.jpg
The Astronomer was seized by the Nazis in 1940 from the de Rothschild’s family. It was returned to the family after the war, but was given to the French government in payment for back taxes in 1983. It now hangs in the Louvre. On the back of the painting there is a black ink Swastika.

This brings me to the subject of this book. Susan Vreeland begins by introducing us to Cornelius Engelbrecht who has decided to reveal after many years of hiding the existence of the painting, a Vermeer, to his friend and art lover Richard.

It can’t be...it can’t be a Vermeer.

There are numerous problems in regards to this painting. Provenance, that all important paperwork establishing authenticity, has been lost or separated from the work. The other major problem is how Cornelius’s father obtained possession of the work. Germany, 1940s, opportunities abounded for artwork and other precious things of value to fall into the hands of the less than scrupulous. There are still families trying to get back artwork that was confiscated by the Germans or stolen by opportunists and sold to collectors/museums all over the world.

”Look. Look at her eye. Like a Pearl.”

 photo hyacinth_zpscf8696e5.jpg
The Girl in Hyacinth Blue painted by Jonathan Janson

So what is this painting? It is of Magdalena Vermeer, daughter of the painter. The one most like him. The one with sewing shoved into her hands when her fingers ached for the brushes.

”She loved him, loved what he did with that hand, and even, she suspected, loved what he loved, though they had never spoken of it. When that thought lifted her face to his, she saw his cheeks grow softer, as if he noticed her in the house for the first time.”

It was hard for anyone to get his attention, especially a young girl who was loved most when not disruptive to his brooding thoughts.

Vreeland begins the book with Cornelius and then steadily takes us back in time with the painting. The people that swirl around the painting are brought to life and the influence of having something so beautiful gracing their lives shows the greedy need we all have to possess something so alluring. One of my favorite stories is of a poor family trying to save their farm from a flood and in the midst of this conflict a baby is laid in their boat along with the painting with instructions to sell the artwork to feed the baby. The painting becomes a source of tension between the husband and wife. The wife doing anything she can to keep it. The husband, thinking of the winters to come, knows the money from selling it will allow him to expand his breeding stock which will better insure the family's long term survival. The wife becomes rebellious, but her mother sets her straight.

”Work is love made plain, whether man’s or woman’s work, and you’re a fool if you can’t recognize it. The child’s the blessing, Saskia, not the painting.”

When she does finally sell the painting I could feel the pain of the loss as acutely as does Saskia. There is nothing she will ever be able to buy for the rest of her life that will replace the vibrancy of a Vermeer painting. She does leave her mark on the painting because she names it and she passes that name to the buyer.


In the later chapters we even meet Vermeer as he struggles with creditors and subjects for art that will inspire him to lift his brush. We meet the mutinous Magdalena as she struggles against the forces trying to make her learn the skills that will make her a valuable housewife. How can you mend when you must create? In the final chapter we see her meeting her painting once again. She borrows every scrap of money she can to try and buy it when it comes up for auction, but paintings like that aren’t supposed to be owned by normal people, not even a person who has the blood of the painter cycling through her own heart.

It is always so ironic to think of painters giving away paintings for a loaf of bread and a few decades/centuries later those same works of art becoming worth inconceivable amounts of money.

The book gets better and better as we walk back through history with Vreeland. The later chapters are stellar, poignant, and captivating. They lift the book from a three star to a four star. The author put me in the same room as Vermeer, so much so I could almost see the light the way he saw it.

 photo GirlReadingaLetter_zpsd4c3a52e.jpg
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Vermeer.
Profile Image for Lisa.
432 reviews71 followers
December 7, 2022
“Girl in Hyacinth Blue'' is the eponymous fictional Vermeer painting Susan Vreeland creates for her second novel. Told as short stories, the novel traces the provenance of the painting in reverse chronological order from the 1990's U.S. to it's painting by Vermeer in the 17th century Netherlands. Each chapter paints a picture for me of the life of the person in whose hands the painting rests and the impact it has on his or her life.

Vreeland deftly and quickly captures her characters and their relationships. Despite their brief appearances I feel like I know them and can relate to them.

A loving middle-aged couple, so tender and caring with each other:
“The winsome lilt of Digna humming in the garden. Her knowing, almost teasing look, not quite a smile, when she knew she had the upper hand about something, and his willing acquiescence. Her coaxing in the dark next to him - What was your favorite part of the day? - to which he'd always say, because he always thought it - now, touching you. He'd feel the lump of truth form in his throat, the swell of love in his loins. And afterward, the peace of her rhythmic breathing, steady as a Frisian clock, her simple uncomposed lullaby. Those are things he would, in some final, stretched-out moment, relive. How love builds itself unconsciously, he thought, out of the momentous ordinary.”

The desires of a young girl with her life ahead of her:
“Wishes had the power to knock the breath out of her. Some were large and throbbing and persistent, some mere pinpricks of golden light, short-lived as fireflies but keenly felt.”

In this work Vreeland urges me to give more of my life to beauty, to my loved ones, to quiet reflection, and to really noticing and savoring the people and the environment around me--reminders I can always use.

While these stories stand alone, assembled as a whole they convey the timelessness of this painting as a work of art juxtaposed to the finite periods that it is held by its admirers. And I am reminded that life is a journey of discovery.
Profile Image for Antoinette.
782 reviews61 followers
September 5, 2022
This book interested me as I will be seeing Vermeer’s paintings in person in the next couple of weeks. An interesting premise to follow the painting from present day to its conception, spending time with each owner and seeing it move on, whether it be because of financial need or something more nefarious.
What each owner had in common was a love for this piece. For each of them it brought beauty into their lives. It was a source of happiness where there might have been none.
My only complaint is that each story left me wanting more. These are interlinked short stories. The link is The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a fictional painting by Vermeer.

Published: 1999
January 7, 2019
This is a story of a Vermeer painting, beginning with it's present owner and tracing back through about five owners and finally to the artist while painting the picture.

This was a great read. very original and interesting. I loved the strong characters in this little book, I've read it at least twice.

The prose was well written and flowed beautifully from story to story. Just a wonderful book.

Recommend for all fans of beautifully written historical fiction
Profile Image for Susan Vreeland.
29 reviews705 followers
October 14, 2013
This entry will be out of the ordinary. I wrote GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE,and somehow it appeared in the wrong place on Goodreads. I can't seem to remove it, so I might as well supply a review.

December 19, 1999
Picture This: A novel of a haunting painting and its effect on a succession of owners over three centuries.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland
by Katy Emck
Susan Vreeland's second novel, "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," may be a book about a painting, but it is never content with surfaces. Tracing the influence of one extraordinary picture on a succession of human lives, it touches gently yet thoughtfully on such weighty topics as the immortality of a great artwork and the ways in which art can be used for various ends. In the course of her explorations, Vreeland covers a lot of time and space: "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" begins in present-day America and ends in the 17th century Netherlands, scrolling backward as each chapter accounts for the painting's role in the life of one of its owners.
Among other things, Vreeland has given us an art detective story, since the early chapters suggest that this marvelous painting--a portrait of a young girl whose face seems to be filled with dreams and longings--may be a lost Vermeer. When we first encounter it, the picture is hidden from view, its possession the dark secret of a lonely mathematician whose father looted it from a Dutch Jewish family that he then sent to die in a concentration camp. Horrified by his father's crimes, he worships the painting with obsessional fervor, fearing that if anyone sees it, the secret of its provenance will come to light. But, as is the way with such things, he also feels compelled to show off his trophy.
The chapter that displays the mathematician's solitary, guilt-filled pleasure is followed by another that provides a lively view of the close-knit Jewish family from whom the painting was stolen--and particularly of the young daughter who identifies with its subject, a girl just about her own age. This sequence establishes the pattern for the book's structure: each chapter stands on its own, a marvel of economy, yet also builds on the knowledge the reader has already gained.
Vreeland is especially good at conveying the tensions that arise among her characters but go largely unspoken. She is also adept at capturing the differing sensibilities of various historical periods, working unobtrusively and successfully avoiding a contrived "period" feel. In the process, she provides her own nicely sketched gallery of portraits: a frivolous Frenchwoman marooned in a loveless marriage in the 19th-century Netherlands; an 18th-century farmer's wife hungering for beauty in the midst of the flat Dutch countryside; and an Enlightenment scientist who embarks on an affair with a superstitious serving girl.
In all these episodes, the painting is pivotal, both in a practical and a spiritual sense. The aristocratic Frenchwoman hates all things Dutch except the girl in the painting because she recognizes in her a sense of hope that she herself has lost. The farmer's wife loves the same girl because she symbolizes a serene loveliness that is unattainable for people who labor in the fields. In the end, each woman is forced to sell the painting so that each, in her own very different way, can survive. But for each of them, the possession of "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" leads to profound changes.
This conflict of the spiritual and the practical comes to dominate the final chapters of the novel in which the exigencies of the painter's life are movingly brought to the fore. Like many of its predecessors, the penultimate chapter is filled with a sense of tenderness, of gratitude for the gift of life--a mood that doesn't cloy because it is accompanied by a clear evocation of the daily stresses of loving and living. But the crowning chapter is the final one, which introduces the girl in the picture and provides a glimpse of what is actually going on behind those dreamy eyes.
Throughout "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," Vreeland strikes a pleasant balance between the timeless world of the painting as a work of art and the finite worlds of its possessors and admirers--not to mention the world of its subject and its creator. Intelligent, searching and unusual, the novel is filled with luminous moments; like the painting it describes so well, it has a way of lingering in the reader's mind.

Katy Emck is a freelance reviewer based in London.

Profile Image for Laura.
6,910 reviews565 followers
July 26, 2012
Just arrived from Italy, kindly sent by Hayes, through BM.

This book is a collection of 8 short stories describing the story of Vermeer, the famous 17th century Dutch painter. A splendid and delightful book.

1. Love enough
2. Night different from all other nights
3. Adagia
4. Hyacinth blues

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

5. Morningshine --
6. From the personal papers of Adriaan Kuypers --
7. Still life --

The Little Street

The View of Delft

Girl Reading a Letter by an open window

The Milkmaid

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha

8. Magdalena looking.

Some interesting links about Vermeer:

Johannes Vermeer - The Art, Paintings and Life of Jan Vermeer "Van Delft"

Johannes Vermeer’s influence and inspiration

Essential Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, a review by Mark Haden
15 reviews
August 5, 2007
Girl in Hyacinth Blue tells the story of a painting by the Dutch painter Vermeer, as it passes from one owner to another. Interestingly, the story is told in reverse chronological order, beginning with the math teacher who, at present time, hides the painting in his home, to the girl in the painting and her wishes to become an artist herself. I thought the book kept getting better and better as it travels back in history to reveal the effects the painting had on each owner. They all find some connection between it and their own lives, though the reasons for the connections vary drastically. However, the act of giving up the painting is difficult for all; they struggle with it but know that selling/giving away the painting must be done out of necessity.
Profile Image for [S] Bibliophage.
950 reviews859 followers
February 24, 2018
I bought this book around 2008 to 2010. I just stored it in my box of books and never even bother to read it. Then I found this while I was sorting box recently. I never expected that I was deeply engrossed in the stories most especially Morningshine, From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers and Still Life. This is one of those books that is a page-turner and you'll still definitely love to read after several years have passed.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,815 reviews343 followers
February 9, 2016
A previously "undiscovered" Vermeer is revealed and the author traces its ownership back in time to its origination. Each owner (or custodian) has a slightly different reason for wanting to keep the painting, and different reasons for letting it go. Each time it changes hands, the owner is pained to part with it. And still, for everyone it represents longing and wishes unfulfilled.

November 6, 2021
Brush with Fate
«Erasmo dice che, dopo aver liberato gli ateniesi dalla crudeltà dei Trenta tiranni, Trasibulo emanò un decreto che proibiva al popolo qualsiasi riferimento al passato. Il decreto fu chiamato amnestia
Nel 1669, Vermeer dipinge la Merlettaia, un olio su tela di 23,9 x 20,5 centimetri. Più piccolo di un A4...
Qualche anno dopo, è forse sempre Johannes Van der Meer che dipinge Girl in Hyacinth Blue? È forse lo sguardo della figlia Magdalena, quello che Johannes avrà ritratto, dipingendo la fanciulla assorta nella contemplazione, il lavoro di cucito abbandonato sul tavolo? È forse...
Sia come sia, questo dipinto attraverserà quattro secoli, passando di mano in mano, come fosse il pacchetto dei sei gradi di separazione di Milgram.
Scopriremo così il dipinto ai giorni nostri, a Philadelphia, nelle mani del figlio di un ufficiale delle SS, che si era impossessato del quadro, sottraendolo di nascosto dalla casa di una famiglia ebrea, durante il Rastrellamento del 3 settembre 1942, ad Amsterdam.
E proseguendo in questo strano viaggio a ritroso nel tempo, tra una passeggiata sulla Promenade de Longchamp e l’ascolto del mozartiano Quartetto delle Dissonanze, ritroveremo il dipinto all’Aja, ai primi dell’Ottocento, a casa di una facoltosa famiglia olandese.
E poi ancora a Oling, nel 1717, durante la disastrosa inondazione di San Nicola, a casa di una famiglia di poveri agricoltori.
E infine nella maestosa casa di mattoni di Pieter Claesz Van Ruijven, sul canale Oude Delft, dove Vermeer...
Naturalmente, il personaggio principale del racconto sembrerebbe essere il quadro, ma la Vreeland, in tutti gli ‘episodi’, trova il modo di raccontare le tante Hannah, Digna, Claudine, Magadalena, Aletta, Saskia, donne la cui libertà è limitata da convenzioni sociali e religiose, che le privano del controllo sulle loro vite e sulla vita dei loro figli.
In memoria di Frozan Safi.
Profile Image for Wyndy.
194 reviews81 followers
April 17, 2019
This book has been on my shelf for years, so I randomly picked it up with low expectations, looking for something calm, easy and historical, and was immediately drawn in to author Susan Vreeland’s imaginary tale of a 17th century Dutch painting, assumed to be the work of master Johannes Vermeer, and its journey through the centuries. ‘Girl In Hyacinth Blue’ is a series of tightly interwoven short stories that make a complete novel. Each story is its own time capsule, taking us backward through eight owners’ personal histories and emotional ties to the painting, and each story becomes a bit more compelling as we near the creation of the painting itself. Along the way, a mystery develops about the parentage of a swaddled newborn left inside a skiff with the painting and a cryptic, hand-scrawled message: “Sell the painting. Feed the child.” The resolution of this mystery was perfect.

An entertaining escapist read with beautifully written characters and Netherlands landscapes and heartily recommended to anyone who liked ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ or who appreciates stories about the timeless, personal power of art.

“Now it became clear to her what made her love the girl in the painting. It was her quietness. A painting, after all, can’t speak. Yet she felt this girl, sitting inside a room but looking out, was probably quiet by nature, like she was. But that didn’t mean the girl didn’t want anything . . . Her face told her she probably wanted something so deep or so remote that she never dared breathe it but was thinking about it there by the window.” ~ Hannah Vredenburg
Profile Image for Celia.
1,234 reviews165 followers
March 5, 2019
Susan Vreeland loved to write historical fiction about art. I LOVE to read historical fiction about art. What a match!!

I did not know what to expect from this book with stories written about a fictional Dutch painting from the 1600's. A very pleasant surprise indeed.

The story starts in the present day where a professor swears he has a Vermeer. No provenance that proves it. He just KNOWS!!

The rest of the chapters describe where the painting has been and its origin. I LOVED this story telling. And Vreeland's writing style as well.

Vreeland passed away in 2017. Luckily for me she left behind at least 7 novels marrying historical fiction with a painting.

Next up - Luncheon of the Boating Party. Stay tuned!!

5 stars
Profile Image for Outis.
317 reviews56 followers
September 10, 2018
Una serie di racconti che hanno come filo conduttore il possesso di un quadro forse dipinto da Vermeer, La ragazza in blu, ordinati in senso cronologico dal più moderno al più antico, tutti, tranne il primo, ambientati nei Paesi Bassi.
All'inizio non mi stava proprio colpendo, ho trovato i due primi racconti, quelli ambientati nel Novecento, prevedibili e noiosi. Mi sono detta "Se i racconti sono tutti così sarà una faticaccia finirlo, per fortuna il libro è breve".
Invece, per fortuna, il libro era in crescendo. Il terzo e il quarto racconto mi sono piaciuti di più. Ma il meglio era alla fine: gli ultimi quattro racconti mi sono piaciuti molto, in particolare i due ambientati durante la grande inondazione del 1717.
Il voto effettivo sarebbe più 3.5 ma visto che i racconti erano in crescendo, la Vreeland si porta a casa 4 stelline e io farò finta di non aver letto i primi due racconti.
Profile Image for Nancy.
115 reviews3 followers
February 10, 2019
This is a delightful story telling the journey of a painting presumably painted by the Dutch master Vermeer. It tells it's journey in reverse starting with it's present day owner who is a Math professor in Philadelphia and working it's way back to it's origins in The Netherlands where the daughter of the painter must relinquish her hold on it when her circumstances are dire.

We learn the stories of each person or family who has acquired the painting, their attachment to it and eventually how or why they part with it. The painting has a special hold over each of it's owners.
In between hearing about the painting and it's many owners one is also made aware of the current events of the time.

This is my second reading of this book and I enjoyed it as much as the first time. Definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Mary Ann.
419 reviews39 followers
February 5, 2021
The painting is the star of this lovely book, a series of stories tracing the provenance of a fictional Vermeer. ( Oh, how I wish it were real!) I liked this book very much, not so much as Donna Tartt's Goldfinch or Tracy Chevalier's exquisite Girl with a Pearl Earring. Perhaps it's because I prefer longer novels to novellas and short stories, but I wanted so much to know more of each of the caretakers of the painting after it left his or her keeping.

It's beautifully written richly depicting a range of emotionally-laden, usually sad and/or tragic, circumstances with a disciplined restraint. I will certainly read more by this author as I enjoy books about art almost as much as books about books.
Profile Image for Rachael.
181 reviews122 followers
January 9, 2008
I really enjoyed this book. I've owned it for seven or eight years now, and I reread it every six months or so. It's a beautifully written series of brief chapter-sized vignettes recounting the history of a Vermeer painting, as told (in reverse chronological order) by all the people who have possessed the painting. The final stor(ies) are told by the painting's model, Vermeer's daughter. Each chapter also deals with the decision of each character to give up the painting for various reasons.

Couple reading this with Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is also about a Vermeer painting. It's an interesting pair.
Profile Image for Carol.
825 reviews
August 17, 2012
Great read! Vreeland writes several short stories of a lost Vermeer painting and the people whose lives it touched. The stories are told from the present to long ago, back in time. This lost painting is a portrait of a young woman looking out a window, lost in thought, brilliantly clothed in hyacinth blues. The stories contain exquisite visual descriptions of his artwork and the everyday lives of ordinary women. I loved how Vreeland described color and how his paintings contained the "dust of crushed pearls." I also like how a glimpse into each family's lives makes them real and endearing to us.

Profile Image for Adriane Devries.
509 reviews10 followers
February 21, 2018
The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland, was a well-written, thought provoking and inspiring book; but to tell you the truth, I probably would not have finished it if it weren’t for the fact that I was in a book club that keeps me accountable. It’s the perfect example of why I’m in this book club in the first place: to keep me reading things that challenge me a bit, rather than always the easy, thrilling Dan Brown or JK Rowling types.

I liked Girl in Hyacinth Blue, not only because it portrays the impact of a single piece of forgotten art in the lives of dramatically different people over several centures; but also for its treatment of the figure in the painting itself: the “girl in hyacinth blue” was the daughter of the Dutch painter Vermeer, and she wondered what people would feel when they looked on her father’s painting, reflecting to herself that “they will never know me.” You can hear her struggling with the question of her worth as a woman, a mere daughter of a then-struggling artist who never himself had time to notice his daughter, except when he studied her academically for her portrait.

I feel affinity for this girl because the very element that drew admiration and other passionate feelings for the painting was her expression of deep longing. This longing is a recurring theme in my own art and writing, as it is in so much of the art that is already out there. My question, like hers, and like Vermeer’s no doubt was, has always been, Does the world need another painting? Another novel? Another voice like mine? Might someone out there be moved by my outpouring of my own unfinished heart?

Vreeland’s novel attempts to prove that life would be unlivable without the inspiration and beauty of art. And as not everyone appreciates even a Vermeer painting, its worth centuries later is undeniable; so also each work of art, each individual life like mine, has a purpose that will impact generations to come, even if “they will never know me.”
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,115 followers
July 26, 2013
I recently read Girl with a Pearl Earring because I'm going to go see it at the High Museum in Atlanta, and another GoodReads friend turned me on to this book. Most of the chapters of this book were previously published individually, all telling bits of a story of another Vermeer painting. I loved how there was so much mystery to the painting, so many stories surrounding it, even if they were fiction, still an enjoyable read. Her descriptions of the landscape are also very vivid.

Little bits I marked:

"Now it became clear to her what made her love the girl in the painting. It was her quietness.... But that didn't mean that the girl didn't want anything, like Mother said about her. Her face told her she probably wanted something so deep or so remote that she never dared breathe it but was thinking about it there by the window. And not only wanted. She was capable of doing some great wild loving thing."

"Love builds itself unconsciously, out of the momentous ordinary."
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,946 followers
July 17, 2008
I like the way this author writes. This is one of those books where an object is the main character, rather than a person. In this case, the object is a (fictional) Vermeer painting of a girl sitting and looking out the window with her sewing in her lap.
There are eight interconnected stories that follow the painting back through history to its various owners and how they came to own or sell the painting. Eventually it works back to Vermeer's creation of the painting.
My only complaint is that I wish some of the stories would have had more depth. A couple of them end just as you're getting attached to the characters and interested in what will happen next.

I especially liked the story From the Personal Papers of Adriaan Kuypers. Sad,(I cried at the end of it), but well told and a little more fleshed out than some of the others.

I think it says something for the author that by the end of the book I felt like I could actually see the painting with all its colors and light play.
Profile Image for Praxedes Rivera.
420 reviews11 followers
February 4, 2021
This book details the provenance of a Vermeer painting as it travels through myriad hands over centuries. In nicely metered prose, Vreeland chronicles each of the major transfers of ownership from diverse angles. One vignette would feature the artist himself, another the subject who sat for the painting, another a trade that moved the work outside of the country, and so on.

Art history lovers will be delighted with descriptions of painting techniques and nuances, and historical fiction buffs will be equally pleased with the carefully curated montages of life over time.

306 reviews13 followers
July 15, 2009
This is one of the better novels inspired by the paintings of Vermeer. I say that because I've recently read 4 of them:

Tracey Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring was undoubtedly the best of them, with a solid plotline, populated by recognisable characters and was sophisticated enough to involve thematic imagery.

This is followed by Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The writing is good in this but the book is not so much a novel but a series of short stories that are linked by one Vermeer painting, a fictional provenance. The characters and their stories are compelling.

There is a big quality gap before we come to Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever. The plot is actually quite original with an unpredictable twist. Sadly the characters insipid and unlikeable, not to mention unbelievable. Read only if you must.

Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson is undoubatedly the worst. Half the book is spent moping around the Irish countryside. Nothing happens and the author is unfortunately not talented enough to make nothing work (unlike say, James Kellner who does exactly that in How Late It Was How Late). The main character is shallow and pathetic. This made it difficult to be convinced about her motives when it comes to the theft of a Vermeer. No matter how much you love Vermeer (or reading), don't waste your time on this one.

I have more detailed reviews under each of these books.

I wonder if there are any more Vermeer-related novels out there. It's a good thing painters are still judged by their paintings.
Profile Image for Jaksen.
1,377 reviews65 followers
June 28, 2017
Excellent book...

I picked this little book up at a 'nature' site on Cape Cod, a location where there are gardens and flowers for sale, and a little house where home-made jams and jellies are made. I visit every year and buy hand-made bars of soap, visit the bees in the bee hive, maybe buy a funny fake snake or two. This year they had a few used books for sale and the title of this book...I couldn't resist!

It's the story of a painting, and its 'provenance' back through time. Who owned it, when and how they came to buy/procure/obtain/steal it. How the owners felt about it - how the painting made them feel, along with some 'back story,' often evocative, sometimes tragic, about those owners.

This is a richly imaginative, uniquely told story and I sat and read it through a day and a half. In a rocking chair in the sun, then the breeze, in the near-perfect climate (for this time of year) of Cape Cod. I could almost feel this girl - in the painting, supposedly by Dutch artist, Vermeer - as she gazes off, just thinking...

Just thinking. Just existing. No greater meaning sometime than saying merely that, just being.

Enjoyed it thoroughly.
Profile Image for Natasa.
1,203 reviews
January 29, 2019
I was impressed with Vreeland’s superb research and storytelling talents. This was a wonderful book that is not only an excellent work of historical fiction but also presents an intriguing mystery that makes for an enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,050 reviews48.7k followers
January 4, 2014
Vreeland's novel possesses the strength of its subject. Each of the eight chapters focuses on a small painting by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master, who produced quiet paintings with exquisite color and subtlety.

This structure plays to Vreeland's successful career as a writer of short stories, but the novel's fascinating focus on the painting of a young girl holds the book together in a long, thoughtful gaze.

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.
Profile Image for Deborah Ideiosepius.
1,676 reviews132 followers
February 8, 2018
A very nicely written series of stories revolving around the central theme of a painting.

If this rating lacks the warmth nay even ecstasy of some other reviews I saw before acquiring it, this is due to a couple of factors that I, the reader brought to it rather than any inherent insufficiency of the book itself:

The first thing that rather set me back was that it is very much individual stories. Not interconnected stories even and certainly not 'a novel' as represented. As a fast reader, I find story collections a bit of a trial because they are over so fast. In this story collection we trace the painting of The Girl In Hyacinth blue back through time. It is a nice touch that we go back to the beginning from the modern age instead of the other way, as most narratives would choose. It is also exquisitely researched, loved the historic detail and the artistically influenced scene descriptions.

We start as a modern day teacher shows his secret Vermeer to a fellow art teacher. He will not say where he got it (since he is shielding his dead father, a Nazi) but describes the history of Vermeer and the artistic qualities of the painting in great detail. The story was good, despite the fact that I didn't care for the characters and did not feel they resonated as real people. Still a good story.

We then go back to the Nazi era and the family who owned it. Also a good story, but it was a jump from the previous characters and while well written, I never really bonded to any of the people in it because it was too short for me to do so.

After that, we start jumping further and further back, I feel that the further the stories got from the modern day, the more detail and research went into them and the more I liked them, the last two are interconnected with the artist and his daughter, showing the origin of the painting from two different perspectives. Now, while I did, very much, enjoy these earlier stories I was acutely frustrated by the lack of dates. I could date 'modern day' and WWII at the beginning, I could date Vermeer at the end, all the middle was a blur. This was outright annoying, I don't know Dutch history anywhere near enough to know when floods happened, and the French conquered it? Maybe? Was that what the story of the twittering French chick was all about?

The lack of dates annoyed me. Several of the characters (while adequate vehicles for the story) were rudimentary and impossible to bond with. And short stories! Do not sell me short stories claiming they are a novel. It is false advertising.
Profile Image for catriona.
Author 1 book5 followers
October 10, 2021
thrifted this and whoever had it before me left a black and white picture of a monarch butterfly between the pages
Profile Image for Antonella Imperiali.
1,132 reviews112 followers
September 23, 2018
Otto racconti che hanno come filo conduttore un quadro, la cui storia si snoda a ritroso nel tempo... in un crescendo di meraviglia e bellezza.
Non pensavo potesse piacermi tanto... Otto piccole perle, come quei gioielli tondi e opalescenti che tanto piacevano a Vermeer...

Ad esclusivo beneficio della mia memoria (la senilità avanza...), di seguito lascio una traccia per ogni racconto, perché il libro non rimarrà con me, una volta letto... Ahimè! dovrò restituirlo alla mia cara Biblioteca... Invidia!...

Ho messo sotto spoiler il tutto; se siete a questo punto e state leggendo è perché lo avete aperto, lettori curiosi...
Bene, siete avvertiti, perciò potete chiudere qui, volendo, ma una cosa dovete saperla in chiaro: è veramente una gran bella raccolta.
Se vi capita, leggetela.

Bene... Cominciamo...

1° racconto: Troppo amore
Dove si racconta di un professore di matematica che svela il suo segreto ad un collega, insegnante d'arte: il possesso di un quadro (forse) di Vermeer, sottratto di nascosto dal padre (tedesco) durante il rastrellamento degli ebrei ad Amsterdam nella notte del 3 settembre 1942. Eredità da celare, indubbiamente, ma è pesante non poter condividere un segreto di questa portata, un esempio di tanta bellezza, un amore così grande...
La Vreeland racchiude in poche parole il libro che sto leggendo in contemporanea per il GdL di saggistica (Io ero Vermeer di Frank Wynne):
Lo sapevi che negli anni Trenta un pittore olandese, un certo Van Meergeren, ha fatto delle copie di alcuni Vermeer? Così perfette da ingannare critici d'arte e curatori di musei? E lo sai come fu smascherato? Ne vendette alcuni a quel nazista, Goering, e il governo olandese lo arrestò per tradimento, come collaborazionista, per aver fatto cadere nelle mani del Reichstag opere di maestri olandesi. Alla fine confessò.
Il professore viene lasciato, dal collega scettico, al suo convincimento, mettendo in forse il loro rapporto.

2° racconto: Una notte diversa da tutte le altre
È la notte che precede la Pasqua ebraica, un momento particolare.
È l'inizio di un'altra vita, questa notte, la vita vera.
Nelle strade i rastrellamenti si susseguono, le file alle drogherie sono lunghe e spesso inutili, nelle case si vivono atmosfere tese.
Il quadro, acquistato ad un'asta, ha il posto d'onore in sala da pranzo sopra una credenza; la ragazza raffigurata è rilassata, assorta, forse pensa o forse osserva qualcosa al di fuori della finestra.
Muta, assiste agli avvenimenti di questa notte particolare.

3° racconto: Le massime di Erasmo
Il romanticismo e la dolcezza pervadono questo racconto.
Una coppia pensa di regalare, come dono di nozze alla figlia, il quadro che il marito ha donato alla propria consorte. Un quadro (che somiglia ad un Vermeer o forse ad un de Hooch) che lui ama particolarmente perché la ragazza raffigurata gli ricorda il suo primo amore. Questa ammissione disturba la moglie.
I ricordi di lui, teneri e dolorosi insieme, tornano a galla e lei si allontana momentaneamente dal marito.
Cosa c'entra Erasmo? La moglie ama ricamare le sue massime.
Quella a cui sta lavorando cita: Ne malorum memineris, "Dimentica i torti".
Un messaggio. O forse un modo come un altro per riavvicinarsi, lasciando i ricordi al passato.

4° racconto: Variazioni blu giacinto
Il colore preferito di Claudine è il blu tipico dei giacinti ancora in boccio, lo stesso blu del grembiule della ragazza del quadro (un Vermeer? un Van Mieris?) regalatole dal marito; quadro che adora per il senso di pace che le procura lo sguardo dolce e innocente della giovane raffigurata.
Ma è costretta a separarsene e, sprovvista della dovuta documentazione, a svenderlo ad un modesto mercante per pochi fiorini, il minimo necessario per fuggire da L'Aja e tornare a Parigi, lontano da quel paese straniero, ma soprattutto lontano dal marito che la tradisce spudoratamente.

5° racconto: Splendore mattutino
Nel piccolo borgo di Oling è in atto un'alluvione. La fattoria sembra un'isola, vi vive una modesta famiglia di contadini: moglie, marito, due bimbi. Una mattina, nella barca che serve loro per spostarsi tra le strutture del borgo, il marito trova una tela dipinta accompagnata da un foglio che riporta il nome dell'artista ed un messaggio, e sotto di essa una cesta con dentro un neonato. Il quadro è bellissimo e la donna ne rimane incantata, ma se vogliono tenere il bimbo (cui loro malgrado si affezionano) e far fronte ai tempi lunghi della riparazione delle dighe ed aspettare che l'acqua venga prosciugata dai mulini, che la terra si asciughi per poterla seminare, e poi i raccolti incerti, bisogna assolutamente vendere il quadro.
Nel paese vicino una rigattiera consiglia la donna di portare il quadro ad Amsterdam per venderlo meglio. Ha la scusa per temporeggiare e lo riporta a casa.
Ma quando ormai non è proprio più possibile andare avanti, col pianto nel cuore, la donna si reca in città e riesce a vendere il quadro in un negozio d'arte di pregio.
Splendore mattutino è il nome che gli ha dato la donna e vorrebbe che il dipinto non lo perdesse.
Settantacinque fiorini il guadagno.
Stupefacente. Magnifico. Davvero una rarità. [...] Guardate il vetro della finestra. Sembra luce liquida. Non si distingue una pennellata. Ora guardate il cesto. I piccoli solchi del pennello che evidenziano la trama dei vimini. Questo è Vermeer.

6° racconto: Dalle carte personali di Adriaan Kuypers
Delfzijl, 1717. Aletta, poco più che una bambina, orfana, bella, sfacciata, occhi selvaggi e capelli come seta, è alla gogna proprio a causa della sua intemperanza.
È così che Adriaan, giovane studente di fisica, la conosce. A fine pena, viene affidata ad una famiglia, proprio quella di Adriaan. Inevitabile che la scintilla scocchi tra i due, e qualche tempo dopo la ragazza, incinta, fugge e si rifugia sul campanile della chiesa del paese dove partorirà due gemelli. Il maschietto è perfetto, ma la femminuccia ha il labbro leporino, una maledizione, secondo la madre; il giorno dopo la bimba è sparita. La pioggia ne rivela a breve il corpicino nella terra smossa e la ragazza, denunciata dalla zia di Adriaan, viene arrestata e sottoposta a giudizio del Consiglio: impiccagione è la sentenza.
Nel frattempo le piogge si sono intensificate, la diga non ha tenuto e l'acqua ha inondato i villaggi e le terre intorno. Ci si muove a malapena in barca, cercando di salvare il salvabile.
Adriaan comprende che non può allevare il figlio di nascosto, lo deve necessariamente affidare a qualcuno. Nel girovagare con la sua barca, incappa in una famiglia (quella di cui al racconto precedente) e decide; prende il bimbo, il dipinto che aveva a casa, il certificato del quadro sul quale scrive un messaggio, un cesto, qualche coperta, un telo e lascia il piccolo nella barca della famiglia da lui scelta. Ha il pianto nel cuore, ma il bimbo è salvo.
Un racconto in cui la superstizione la fa da padrona.
Ah già, il quadro... Aletta piangeva davanti a quel quadro perché, secondo il padre, la ragazza raffigurata somigliava moltissimo alla madre, morta nel darla alla luce.

7° racconto: Natura morta
Jan: una moglie, undici figli più uno in cantiere, senza lavoro, senza denaro, con solo la voglia e la necessità di dipingere, perché non sa fare altro. Ogni tanto torna a guardare i suoi quadri nel salone di un amico, forse per trovare nuova ispirazione o forse, chissà, per estorcergli l'ennesimo anticipo sulla vendita della prossima opera. Poi, un giorno, per sedare un atto di ribellione della figlia, ne scorge la potenzialità per un soggetto.
La fa sedere davanti alla finestra, aggiusta alcuni oggetti sulla tavola accanto: la tovaglia, il cesto del cucito, un bicchiere di latte... La ragazza siede pacata, il vento le fa ondeggiare i capelli che sfuggono alla cuffietta, un indumento da rammendare è adagiato sul suo grembo, una mano è abbandonata sulla gonna, il palmo rivolto in alto.
È perfetto: l'insieme comunica una pace assoluta, illuminata dai caldi toni miele e oro diffusi dalla luce che entra dalla finestra aperta. Un'immagine di quiete quasi miracolosa, una sospensione perfetta.
Lei, Magdalena, sua figlia.
E Jan riprende finalmente a dipingere...

8° racconto: Lo sguardo di Magdalena
A Magdalena piaceva andare alla torre di guardia; da lì si vedeva tutta Delft. Un panorama da togliere il respiro. Le sarebbe piaciuto dipingerlo, come aveva fatto il padre; ma avrebbe voluto anche dipingere altro, cogliendo - ad esempio - certi momenti della vita che si svolgeva intorno a lei, certi atteggiamenti delle persone che osservava, immortalandoli sulle tele. Ma il suo compito, in casa, era quello di badare ai fratelli più piccoli e rammendare. Il resto è sogno. Poi...
È bastato un atto di ribellione, insolito per lei, ad attirare l'interesse del padre. Si è ritrovata seduta al tavolo, davanti alla finestra, il padre che la ritraeva.
Il padre che si interessava più agli oggetti, alla luce, ai colori... Ma non espressamente a lei, come persona. È come se in questo tempo condiviso, non ci fosse accordo, non ci fosse amore. Per Magdalena è sofferenza pura, è attesa, è proiezione verso qualcosa che le manca. Il suo sguardo lo dice.
Il quadro è finito, è bello, ma nessuno lo vuole. Alla fine servirà per pagare i debiti.
La famiglia, alla soglia della povertà, si trasferisce in una casa più piccola, senza luce, dove il padre non riuscirà più a dipingere e dove, pochi anni dopo, morirà.
Magdalena, ormai adulta, sposa un buon ragazzo, un sellaio; purtroppo perde tutti i suoi figli in tenera età.
Nel 1696, legge su un giornale di un'asta pubblica che proporrà la vendita di molte opere, tra cui alcuni dipinti del defunto J. Vermeer di Delft. Forse tra questi c'è il suo ritratto, pensa.
Rivedere i quadri del padre è ripercorrere la propria infanzia, ritrovare i suoi sogni. C'è anche il suo ritratto, che tenta di aggiudicarsi, ma che alla fine viene acquistato da una coppia per quarantasette fiorini. Troppo per lei. Le altre opere avevano realizzato molto di più.
Durante il ritorno a casa i suoi pensieri vanno ai ritratti, al suo ritratto... La gente l'avrebbe osservata da vicino, l'avrebbe guardata intensamente, ma di lei non avrebbe mai saputo nulla.

Non ho parole...

📖 GdL tema del mese (set. 2018): il colore (nel titolo) 🎨
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This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Joanne.
616 reviews59 followers
June 3, 2023
A gem. Beautifully written, the words coming together, blending emotions of sadness and love.

Vreeland tells the life story of a painting, thought to be an unknown Vermeer, in reverse order. The beginning starts us off with a man who knows where his father got the painting and is ashamed. From there the the paintings story travels back approximately 300 years. There we are told the story of the paintings subject.

With each owner of the painting, we are offered small bits of their life. Each owner has their own reasons for embracing the painting and never wanting to let go. Written so well, I imagined myself sitting for hours just staring at the art piece.

A true gem, chapters more like short stories, each containing a message of hope. I highly recommend.

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