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.
In a nutshell:
I read it in: English
I liked it: Yes, very much. The best read in a long time.
For people who like: short stories, art, history
Until I read this book I looked at a painting and liked it or not, I never contemplated who owned it before and whether they sold it out of need for money or for whatever other reason.
This book totally changed this. It consists of eight stories of people who owned the same painting at one time or other and then had to give it up. The stories are in chronological order, but in reverse, which, in my opinion, is the best possible way. Like an archeologist who digs deeper and deeper and reveals more and more about the past, we first learn about the painting’s whereabouts today, however what will become of it tomorrow is uncertain.
The settings are as different as they can be, from a Nazi’s son who inherited it from his father who stole it from an empty home of a Jewish family, to a French noblewoman who had to sell it in order to go back to France, to a Dutch farmer’s wife who came by it together with a foundling, the stories are moving and “unputdownable”. Some of its owners are completely unaware of who Vermeer was and whether the painting is worth anything or not. At one point in the book the painting is sold for a pittance – and everybody is aware of that – simply because the seller, due to unfortunate circumstances, could not produce the accompanying paper to prove who painted it.
[…] for now it would go fourth through the years without its certification, an illegitimate child, and all illegitimacy, whether of paintings or of children or of love, ought to be a source of truer tears than any I could muster at parting.
From now on two things that belong together are separated for good and from now on the creatorship of the painting will never be certain again.
Some of the stories are overlapping and this is one point I didn’t quite get. The last two stories are set at the same time at their beginning but the last one continues to go on further into the future. So I would have liked to read the two stories in the reverse order. If the chronological order had been followed all the way through the book the last story should have been the one that ends with Jan Vermeer starting to paint.
Even though the last sentence of the book was a truly fabulous one (as a last line as well as in general), the last sentence of the story before (in my eyes the *real* last one) would have been equally suitable as the ending of the book. Mind you, I am not complaining at all, the book was the best read in a long, long time for me, just this little “dis-order” made me wonder why it was done. What is the thought behind it?
All that aside, this book is wonderful, beautifully written and you just want to read on and on. If you are even only vaguely interested in art, history or simply beautiful books, go and get “Girl in Hyacinth Blue”.
By the way you can have a look at the painting “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” by Jonathan Janson at Essential Vermeer.
Brush with fate
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Have you read this book? What did you think of it? I would love to hear other opinions.