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An Interview with Susan Vreeland

Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces the painting, a figment of the author's imagination, through a series of eight interconnected short stories. Readers time travel through these stories from today back to the moment Vermeer created the painting of a girl lost in contemplation, her hands idle in her lap, her sewing forgotten.

While demonstrating "six degrees of separation," Vreeland connects other topics. Her depiction of the women in each story emphasizes their limited freedom and lack of control over their lives and the lives of their children. Vreeland also incorporates the horrors of the Holocaust from several perspectives, most notably the victim and victimizer and swirls it around the main character of her book—the painting. She demonstrates how one person's evil changes forever the dynamics of those he loves.

Susan Vreelands' Girl in Hyacinth Blue has been produced by the Hallmark Hall of Fame. It was aired Sunday, February 2, 2003 on CBS. C lick here for Susan Vreeland's Home Page

December 2, 2002

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Jonathan Janson
Girl in Hyacinth Blue
painted by Jonathan Janson for the TV adaptation of the Girl in Hyacinth Blue
(produced by Hallmark)

The Essential Vermeer: Why did you use painting, rather than another form of art to explore the relationship between art and life?

Susan Vreeland: Though not an art historian, I'm more familiar with painting than other art forms, having had painters in my distant family and growing up surrounded by them, so I was naturally attracted thereto. Also, paintings have been more accessible to me through the wealth of art books published currently. Galileo wrote that painting, which is a two dimensional form, is a higher achievement in replicating life than sculpture which is already a three-dimensional form and therefore requires less of its maker. An interesting thesis, but it does not account for the emotional or spiritual context of a work, only its qualities of physical representation. By the sheer volume of paintings I've encountered, it's natural that I turned to them, though I've had reactions just as moving to some pieces of sculpture by Rodin, Bernini and Michelangelo.

Why did you choose Vermeer as the subject of your novel instead of another painter?

With a Dutch name but no known family history, I found myself, during a period of extended illness, poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995–1996 Johannes Vermeer exhibition, and imagining my way out of my uncertain circumstances by imagining my way into these paintings. In his paintings of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, bathed by that gorgeous honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, I found a healing tranquility. They reminded me of Wordsworth's line: "With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things." I saw that Vermeer had the same reverence for hand-made things that I felt. He, too, was a lover of the qualities of things: the pale luminous colors in a hand-dipped window pane, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, the rough nap of a hand-knotted Turkish carpet, a hand-drawn wall map.

He invested them with connotations. An earthenware pitcher, a loaf of bread, a sewing basket suggest home and family. The window, a letter, the Turkish carpet, the map all speak of an alluring world beyond the home. He was offering them as objects worthy of stories. The cords of connection tightened, and I felt free to partner with him in the act of creation. To his spare interior, for example, I added a glass of milk which, to my fictional Vermeer, "made the whole corner sacred by the tenderness of just living."

In your writing was it an advantage or a disadvantage to the fact that so little is known of the life and work of Vermeer?

Because Girl in Hyacinth Blue is more of a novel of the effects of one imaginary painting on people in four centuries rather than the life of the painter, it was an advantage that relatively little is known about Vermeer. Had there been as much scholarship on Vermeer as on Rembrandt, for example, I would have been overwhelmed. As it was, I was able to discover just enough to populate and shape and make concrete the two stories that deal directly with Vermeer out of the eight stories in the book.

Which picture or pictures by Vermeer did you have in mind when you imagined the "unknown Vermeer"?

The window bathing a figure in warm light I took from Woman with a Water Jug and Woman with a Pearl Necklace. The reflection of a woman's face in that window was suggested by Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The color of Magdalena's smock came from Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. The Spanish chair with lion's head finials, the black and white tile floor, the map, the red and blue Turkish carpet can be seen in several paintings already named. The idea of sewing came from The Lacemaker, and the idea of a glass of milk on the table came from The Milkmaid even though those paintings did not have the objects I invented. Vermeer's Portrait of a Young Woman, which melts me with love, was the face I held in my mind when writing Vermeer's daughter, Magdalena's, character.

Has your thoughts and feelings regarding Vermeer changed after the completion of the book?

It wasn't until after the book was published that I ever saw an original Vermeer face to face. Those three occasions deepened my appreciation for his art, for the mastery of his brush strokes, his glazing, his details. To be in their presence was as profound a joy as I can imagine.

Do you feel that the explosion of global communications technology which has taken place in the last decades has any relation with the explosion of popularity of Vermeer in the same period?

This is not a thought that had occurred to me, no. There is, however, a definite appeal to the emotions in his paintings showing women reading or writing letters. The intensity of this communication, so slow at the time, is palpable. One can imagine both Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter devouring quickly and then rereading the long awaited letter where every word is precious.

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