Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue
She stood before him as if offered by God. The blue cloth of her smock draped like billowy sky. There was something in the girl he could never grasp, an inner life inscrutable to him. He was in awe of the child’s flights of fancy, her insatiable passion always to be running off somewhere, her active inner life. To still it for a moment, long enough to paint, for eternity, ah.
What if one could own a work of art, admire it every day in solitude, and not when surrounded by a crowd in a museum? What if the painting stood alone on a wall, and not among many other masterpieces that could obscure it? What if this painting had remained unknown, not analyzed by art critics, explained and studied in its smallest details? What if even its author remained uncertain? What emotions would be revealed by a moment face to face with it? What would be the story of such a painting?
Susan Vreeland first wrote two chapters of this book, the first and the last, as independent short stories, before she realized she could write the chapters in between and gather them together into a novel. All the chapters evolve around the story of the same unsigned painting: in the first chapter, a university teacher invites a colleague to his house to show him the painting, being convinced by several details that it is a Vermeer. On the painting, a girl, in a blue dress, is immortalized as she is looking through the window and dreaming, instead of mending the shirt that lies on the table in front of her. Her profile reveals "an eye like a blue pearl". The owner of the painting is about to destroy a masterpiece that is bound to remain secret, as his father acquired it in a shameful manner.
In the following chapters, we trace the painting back to the time of its conception, and before this, as we are given an insight of the model’s soul. From our days back to the seventeenth century, we are allowed a moment in the life of ordinary people, when their own existences become somehow connected to the painting. Each of these persons, men or women, in different periods of history, is affected in one way or another by the painting. The novel questions the meaning of art and its value, either monetary, artistic or sentimental. For all of these people, the painting stands for something ; a monetary supply, a token of shame, a projection of one’s dreams or aspirations, the revival of old memories, etc.
Getting to finally know who the model was and what she was thinking by the time she was painted would have killed part of the magical power of the painting, as suggested by her decision not to introduce herself to the people who had first acquired it. Such is the power of art that it enables one to project his or her own fantasy and find his or her own truth, which can be different from what the model really thought and what the painter saw in her and gave to see.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a beautiful reflection, written in a flawless and poetic language, on the importance of art and its reception, when art is not frozen inside a museum, but rather when it moves with the flow of the lives of people. To a testimony of one moment, a brief soul to soul meeting between a painter and his model, correspond centuries of circulation for the painting, as it interacts with the lives of generations of onlookers. Vreeland has captured these moments with a literary grace that makes the reading of the book another moment full of grace…