Project Happiness 365: Day 119


Once in a while, I come across reviews and articles I wrote for this art magazine back home. Today I was deleting stuffs from my computer and I stumbled upon this review I wrote a couple of years ago for the art magazine. It’s a book review about a novel called ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue‘ by Susan Vreeland. Reading what I wrote made me quite happy. It urged me to express myself more through writing. Here’s what I wrote:

Book Review: “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” by Susan Vreeland

“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.”

“Girl in Hyacinth Blue” (1999), a novel by Susan Vreeland, is about art and human experiences explored through the journey of an allegedly lost masterpiece of Dutch Golden-Age artist Jan Vermeer.  The book was in my bag for a long time but I hadn’t had an opportunity to sit back, relax and leaf through its pages because of my work commitments.  Buying the book in a small, dingy second-hand book store in an old house in the dark alley of New Road, was a chance in itself. Actually I was going through a pile of old issues of National Geography magazine when the bluish book cover and the title caught my attention. I bought it instantly. Finally when I read it, it became a book which I would like to come back to again and again throughout my life.


A collection of eight heart-warming tales moving backward in time from one century to another, from present to past in various places of the Netherlands, explores how the painting was handed over from one owner to another. The book starts off with a mystery novel kind of vibe, where this particular painting of a girl in blue smock by “the master of light” Vermeer, hides a deep dark secret of its owner, a Mathematics teacher Cornelius Engelbrecht. With each story, the mystery of the painting unravels itself and we slowly find out how that work of art travelled throughout different time period from one owner to another. In the painting, the girl is staring dreamily outside of her window instead of doing her mending. Each story describes the beauty of the simple girl in the painting through the eyes of its different owners. The painting seems to evoke deep emotion in hearts and minds of the central characters of the book. Each of them sees a deep tale or a resemblance or some exceptional attributes in the painting. The painting seems to fulfill their own shortcomings and provide them a sense of serenity despite the chaos around and inside them.  Each character communicates and relates with the girl in some way or other. For Cornelius, the girl in the painting is the keeper of his dark secret; for Hannah, the girl is the resemblance of her inner wishes and like her, she wants something deep and remote; for Laurens, the painting is a memory of his first love; and for Saskia, the painting is the only pure, tranquil thing amidst the devastation of flood and a source of joy comforting in her personal turmoil through disintegrating marriage. There is an intimate relationship between the painting and its owner.

Vreeland takes us in an intense journey of the painting in reverse chronology, exploring human relationships, emotions and experiences. The subtle indication of Holocaust, witch-hunting and French occupation in the Netherlands adds character and depth to the already gripping plot. Like a true Vermeer painting, where even everyday scene of ordinary lives is presented in a radiant way through the perfect balance of colours and light, this novel artistically presents a visual reality of everyday lives through simple narrative and an intriguing plot. In his paintings, Vermeer skilfully used light to provide vibrancy, intensity and a grand beauty to otherwise mundane activities his subjects were engaged in. Drawing inspiration from Vermeer’s painting, the writer uses the painting of a girl as the ultimate source of light and hope in the otherwise dismal lives of her characters. The stories interlink with each other giving this novel a sense of completeness.  The book ends with a very heart breaking tale about the subject of the painting, Vermeer’s daughter ‘Magdalena’. The concluding story is all about her – her point of view, her outlook about her life, her relationship with her father and her final, feeble and unsuccessful attempt to acquire the painting again. Although it might seem like a rightful thing to reveal her side of story at the end of the book, I personally felt that the novel would have been much more intense, deep and mystifying if the subject of the painting – the girl had remained a mystery. We, the reader, would have gotten an opportunity to build a story of ‘the girl’ in the painting through our own imagination. Apart from that, the journey of the painting would have ended to its rightful owner – the artist through the second last story in the book “Still Life” which is all about Vermeer, his life, his works and his struggle.

Nevertheless, when you finish reading the last page and you close the book, the emotions you felt while reading each story lingers in your heart for a long time. The detail of the painting “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” is so vivid that you won’t believe the fact that the whole book is based on a painting which is not genuine Vermeer, in fact, the painting is writer’s imagination. Vreeland beautifully crafts individual tales into a single thread of cohesive story which demonstrates the ‘power of art’ and compels us to find the true meaning of our existence and look within ourselves to recognize the true colour of our souls. The book is a work of art in itself.



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