Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion. Never had history been more vibrant, its voices more resonating, its images more gripping. On this first trip to Europe, I felt myself a pilgrim: To me, even secular places such as museums and ruins were imbued with the sacred. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, religious and social history--I was swept away with all of it, wanting to read more, to learn languages, to fill my mind with rich, glorious, long-established culture wrought by human desire, daring, and faith. I wanted to keep a Gothic cathedral alive in my heart. My imagination exploded with the gaiety of the Montmartre dancers at Moulin de la Galette, the laborer whose last breath in his flattened chest was taken under the weight of a stone fallen from the Duomo under construction in Florence, the apprentice who cut himself preparing glass for the jeweled windows of Sainte Chapelle, the sweating quarry worker aching behind his crowbar at Carrara to release a marble that would become the Pietà.
In a fashion I couldn't imagine then, I have been true to this pledge. I have brought to life the daughter of the Dutch painter Vermeer who secretly yearned to paint the Delft she loved. I've given voice to the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, raped at seventeen by her painting teacher, the first woman to paint large scale figures from history and scripture previously reserved for men. On my own continent, I've entered deep British Columbian forests with Emily Carr, whose love for native people took her to places proper white women didn't go. My imagination has followed Modigliani's daughter around Paris searching for shreds of information about the father she never knew. I've imagined myself a poor wetnurse, bereaved of her own baby so that a rich woman, Berthe Morisot, might paint. I've taken my seventeenth century Tuscan shoemaker to Rome to have his longed-for religious experience under the Sistine ceiling. I've followed Renoir's models to cabarets and boat races, to war and elopement, to the Folies-Bergère and luncheons by the Seine.
About Susan Vreeland
An Interview with Susan Vreeland
More About Susan Vreeland
Now some facts as to how I arrived there: After graduating from San Diego State University, I taught high school English in San Diego beginning in 1969 and retired in 2000 after a 30-year career. Concurrently, I began writing features for newspapers and magazines in 1980, taking up subjects in art and travel, and publishing 250 articles. I ventured into fiction in 1988 with What Love Sees, a biographical novel of a woman's unwavering determination to lead a full life despite blindness. The book was made into a CBS television movie starring Richard Thomas and Annabeth Gish. My short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Manoa, Connecticut Review, Calyx, Crescent Review, So To Speak and elsewhere.
My art-related fiction, products of my pledge on Pont Neuf:
- Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999, and a Hallmark Hall of Fame production in 2003, tracing an alleged Vermeer painting through the centuries revealing its influence on those who possessed it.
- The Passion of Artemisia, 2002, disclosing the inner life of Artemisia Gentileschi, Italian Baroque painter who empowered her female heroines with her own courage.
- The Forest Lover, 2004, following the rebel Canadian painter, Emily Carr, seeking the spiritual content of her beloved British Columbia by painting its wild landscape and its native totemic carvings.
- Life Studies, 2005, stories revealing Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters from points of view of people who knew them, and showing that ordinary people can have profound encounters with art.
- Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007, illuminating the vibrant, explosive Parisian world of la vie moderne surrounding Renoir as he creates his masterwork depicting the French art of living.
My work has been translated into twenty-five languages.
- New York Times Best Sellers: Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia, Luncheon of the Boating Party.
- Book Sense Pick, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007.
- Book Sense Year's Favorites, for The Passion of Artemisia, 2002.
- Book Sense Book of the Year Finalist, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999.
- International Dublin Literary Award, Nominee, for Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 2001.
- Independent Publisher Magazine, Storyteller of the Year, for Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999.
- Foreword Magazine's Best Novel of the Year, for Girl in Hyacinth Blue,1999.
- San Diego Book Awards' Theodor Geisel Award and Best Novel of the Year, 1999, for Girl; 2002 for Artemisia, and 2005 for Life Studies.
So, what have I learned from all of this? That entering the mind and heart of painters has taught me to see, and to be more appreciative of the beauties of the visible world. That I can agree with Renoir when he said, "I believe that I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendor (Nature)." That people are hungry for real lives behind the paintings. That readers' lives have been enriched, their sensibilities sharpened, even their goals for their own creative endeavors given higher priorities in their lives.
And especially this: Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own, we see it multiplied and can peer into other times, other worlds which offer windows to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race. Consider this: Where there is no imagination of others' lives, there is no human connection. Where there is no human connection, there is no chance for compassion to govern. Without compassion, then loving kindness, human understanding, peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, and the isolated can turn resentful, narrow, cruel; they can become blinded, and that's where prejudice, holocausts, terrorism and tragedy hover. Art--and literature--are antidotes to that.
Why did you choose Vermeer as the artist? Does his work mean something special to you?
That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure centuries longer than its maker, can survive catastrophe, neglect, even mistreatment, has always filled me with wonder. In museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a medieval illuminated manuscript, or a painting of a person with yearnings like mine, I am moved with awe and tenderness. This is the province and privilege of the writer, to let those concrete things that move us feed our imagination until we find meaning in them. In the case of paintings, I like to ask: Who sat as model for the artist? What was their relationship? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him the day he worked on this? Was his wife happy? Was he contented with his work? Beautiful art books stimulate my thinking similarly, and so, during a period of extended illness, I pored over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Johannes Vermeer exhibition and let my fancy run freely. Here was my ancestral and spiritual heritage, unknown to me before. His images of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, encouraged me to imagine my way out of my uncertain circumstances by imagining my way into these paintings. I found a healing tranquility in these women who 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." Vermeer's characteristic honey-colored light coming through the window bathed their faces and touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene. 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."
Does the girl in the painting carry a special import for you, both in terms of the novel you have written and personally?
When I was nine, my great-grandfather, a landscape painter, taught me to mix colors. With his strong hand surrounding my small one, he guided the brush until a calla lily appeared as if by magic on a page of textured watercolor paper. How many girls throughout history would have longed to be taught that, but had to do washing and mending instead? Magdalena, the girl in my imaginary painting, is drinking in the view outside the window instead of doing her sewing. What does she see? Undoubtedly, things she wants to paint. That longing for skill enough to render for others how one sees the world parallels my own yearning to write well.
Reviewers have noted how beautifully you have rendered the Dutch landscape. Was the landscape an integral part of the story?
Landscape is more than flat land covered by floodwater, the seeping of peat bogs, a river of liquid pewter viewed from a sentry tower. It's an influence on what a person values, what she is willing to sacrifice or argue for. The interior landscape of a soul is, in part, a reflection of the exterior landscape. After one hundred days of confinement following a bone marrow transplant, I rejoiced in taking short walks to a nearby park as I was writing Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The uncertainty of my survival made every blade of grass gorgeous in its green intensity, lifting itself up, doing its part to make the world beautiful. Every breeze touching my neck was a gift, revitalizing me. I looked at the world tenderly, intensely, gratefully, the way Magdalena did. Is it any wonder that landscape is vital to the stories?
Are you trying to send a particular message about art? In the book you write that Vermeer believed that painting helped him not only to find and to understand the truth, but also to convey it for an eternity. Do you think it is possible to do this? Is this one of your goals as a writer?
To feel the grace of God in a painting of the dear, quiet commonness of a domestic interior, or in a landscape, seascape, cityscape, trains us to feel the grace of God in the thing itself in situ. Does the world need another painting of people quietly going about their lives? Does it need another story? Another poem? Yes. We as a people are generally rushing headlong through the decades of our lives without reflection. We keep an unwholesome pace. We don't stop to glory in the sheen of rainwater on a stone or on a child's cheek. It's an oft told tale. If a story or a painting or a poem can urge us toward more contemplative living by which we discover some truth, then, yes, that function of art justifies sacrifices incurred in the making of it, and is a worthy goal of any artist. As for eternity, that, in part, is the responsibility of the receiver.
What kind of research did you do before you began writing Girl in Hyacinth Blue?
First let me say that I loved the research because it enriched my sense of personal origin and heritage and it yielded direction to my writing. The decree against keeping pigeons, the superstition of witches, the devastating floods, the engineering of windmills, the French occupation: all provided material for plot, texture, character and metaphor. I'd been to the Netherlands only once, twenty-five years ago for three days, and I've never seen a Vermeer painting face to face, so I read books on Vermeer, Dutch art, Dutch social and cultural history, the changing geography of the Netherlands as more land was reclaimed from the sea, the Holocaust as experienced in the Netherlands, Erasmus's adages, the history of costume, Passover and the practice of Jewish customs, the diamond trade. I studied historical maps in a wonderful collection at the University of California, San Diego, to learn if villages and canals existed at the time of these stories. This research was ongoing while writing, not just done before. It's only when one gets into the heart of the writing that one knows exactly what one needs. By recent count, I consulted 75 books. Particularly helpful were Johannes Vermeer, the catalog of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition, published by the National Gallery and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis; Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History by John Montias; Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry by Jacob Presser; and Memorbook: History of Dutch Jewry by Mozes Heiman Gans.
Four of the eight chapters had been previously published in various journals. Why did you decide to combine them all into one book? Why did you structure it in this manner, moving from present into the past? Did you write this book from the beginning, or from the end?
Without knowing that I was embarking on a novel, I wrote the first story, "Love Enough," as part of a collection of stories on various arts. Unwilling to abandon the painting I had created, I wrote a companion piece from the point of view of the painting's subject, and called it "Magdalena Looking." A vast gap separated the two. It occurred to me that I could write one story per century, tracing the painting's owners. I called the series "Delft Quartet." Still my imagination wasn't content until I filled in those smaller spaces with companion stories. I wanted to create the Jewish family from whom the painting was looted. I wanted to endanger the painting's existence, and I wanted the artist to speak for himself. Only when I wrote Vermeer's own story, "Still Life," did I realize that I had a composite novel. Having conceived of the contemporary story first, I kept it that way in my mind, and thereby preserved the mystery of whether the painting was, in fact, a genuine Vermeer. Starting at the painting's creation would have spoiled that.
Why do you think your book has touched so many people? What do you think this book gives the reader?
The girl in the painting, not doing her mending, simply thinking and gazing out the window, gives us permission to have moments of reflective inactivity. Saskia's cry to her decent but workaholic husband, "There's got to be some beauty too," Adriaan's sudden grief that he had "fancied love a casual adjunct and not the central turning shaft making all parts move," his regret that he "had not stood astonished before the power of its turning" urge us to give more of our lives to love and beauty and reflection and to the intense noticing of commonplace things.
How did your work as a teacher of literature, writing, and art affect the way that you approached and wrote the novel?
For me, bits of poetry, scenes crafted with paint or words, observations from nature all come together in my work. As a writer I am a hunter and gatherer. For example, while researching tropes for a set of lessons on figures of speech, I find my own prose growing richer with them. In guiding students to appreciate in their reading the felicities of language, the psychological depth of character, the exploration of serious themes, the engagement with fundamental issues of life, mortality, love, faith, artful living, and self-actualization, I concurrently work to infuse these same elements into my writing. While I am encouraging self-actualization of my students through their reading, I am actualizing my own fuller self through writing, by considering those issues mindfully and imaginatively, by living other lives and thereby extending my own. Michaelangelo is said to have remarked, "God is in the details." Similarly in writing, after getting down the basic structure of a story, I love the period of revision where I can add more texture with details. It is no mere coincidence that the last stages of writing are called polishing, and here I think of the ivory sheen on Michaelangelo's most famous Pieta. With this polishing comes the refinement of voice, the unexpected uncovering of inter-relatedness, the possibility of suggesting something meaningful with a detail that reaches into my readers' lives. That is nearly the most wonderful experience I can imagine, and it doesn't come easily or often enough, but when it does, it humbles me with gratitude.
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