‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ by Susan Vreeland
The tattered copy had a forlorn look as it called out to me from a nondescript corner of Blossoms on Church Street. The book and its author were totally unfamiliar, yet there was something that pulled me in and made me open the cover. The window on the cover opened out to an intriguing picture and the book was mine.
A mathematics professor, who is a “mild mannered acquaintance to all rather than a friend to any, a person anxious to become invisible,’ uncharacteristically invites home, his colleague, an art teacher to view a painting. He instantly recognizes the style as that of Vermeer. The professor indignantly ascertains that it is indeed an original ,
“Look. Look at her eye. Like a pearl. Pearls were favorite items of Vermeer. The longing in her expression. And look at that Delft lighting spilling on to her forehead from the window….the grace of her hand, idle, palm up. How he consecrated a single moment in that hand…..Study, if you will, the varying depths of field. Take a look at the sewing basket placed forward on the table, as he often did, by the way, almost as an obstruction between the viewer and the figure. Is weave is diffused. slightly out of focus, yet the girl’s face is sharply in focus. Look at the lace edge of her cap. Absolutely precise to a pinprick right there at her temple. And now look at the glass of milk. Soft edged, and the map on the wall only a suggestion.”
The professor is almost shameful to disclose how it came into his possession. He just says that it was given to him by his father as he was dying. Thus starts the journey of the painting, going back in time.
It took me the first few chapters to understand the connection and then I read in one of the reviews that some of these chapters were originally written as short stories. The author traces back the painting through each of its owners spanning three centuries and finally ends with the girl in the painting.
Mostly set in Holland, each story portrays the passionate feelings that the picture of the girl evoked in its owners, if you may call them so. The reticent Hannah finds her own reflection in the girl, while for Laurens, it was a sweet remembrance of a girl he had loved and lost, For one lady it paid the price of her release and for Adriaan, it was a means for someone to bring up his illegitimate son and an uncomfortable reminder of the girl whom he did not stand by. As for the girl in the painting, it was a much awaited acknowledgement from her father.
But it was Saskia, the potato farmer’s wife who caught the true essence of it, as she admonishes her husband,
“All you see in life is the work. Just planting, hauling, shoveling, digging. That’s all life is to you. But not to me, Stijn. Not to me. There’s got to be some beauty too.”
The language is almost poetic, there are some great descriptions of the painting, specially about the shades of hyacinth. For a non- connoisseur like me, the author has given some great insights into how the great painters achieve the effect of colours and lighting that makes us immediately recognize their works as masterpieces, and how they leave their own signatures.
“Look at the direction of the brush’s stroke, those tiny grooves of the brush hairs. They have their lighted and their shaded side. Look elsewhere. You’ll find overlapping layers of paint no thicker than silk thread that give a minute difference in shade. That’s what makes it a Vermeer.”
Verdict : A short book comprising of eight short stories, this is a delightful read for a lazy afternoon. You may need some extra time to pause and reflect, at least after a couple of stories.