Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
"Why does the world need another painting of a woman alone in a room? Or a hundred more paintings?"
"The world doesn't know all that it needs yet," Pieter said, "but there will come a time when another of your paintings of a woman by a window will provide something."
I have a book that I read every year. Over the years it has become a comforting ritual of discovery as I always come away with renewed understanding of my place in the world and the pleasure of visiting old friends. I have a favorite picture, favorite childhood toy, favorite food...the list continues. I know what I like. More importantly, I know what speaks to me. I recognize the familiar warmth that begins to radiate through me, finally touching my heart as this certain something fulfills a part of me that I may not have even realized was wanting. The book, the toy, the food, the paintingeach has become my own.
Such is the case of the Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, as described by author Susan Vreeland. The paintingthis girl so simple in her dress and demeanorimmediately claims a space in each of her owners' hearts and lives, as an intimate relationship is formed between objet d'art and her possessor. It is the girl, however, who is master as she becomes the keeper of their secrets, while "...they would never know her." She is idolized and coveted by a Nazi man and his son, secreted away to hide past misdeeds. Quietly befriended by a young Jewish girl during dangerous times, her silence becomes acceptance in the face of a life of constant criticism and fear. She is privately adored by a middle-aged man, reminding him of the innocent flush of first love, a love he let slip away. She is the innocent onlooker to the dissolution of a marriage; the savior of a man and his child; the light in a country woman's life; a shining moment in a young girl's lifeshe is that young girl, wanting so much to learn her father's trade, yet knowing her dreams are futile. She is a young woman at rest, whispering, "Let me hear your dreams, questions, and desires. I have all the time in the worldand I understand because I, too, have wished."
Vreeland leads us gently backwards in time with a reverse chronology that reveals the painting's complex history. As we retrace the painting's circuitous route from seventeenth century Amsterdam and its creator's easel to its present unlikely home, welike the girl in the paintingbear silent witness to the lives that the Vermeer has touched. Each chapter is a meditation on the joys and sorrows that bind the human heart deeper into its inexorably mysterious relationship with art.
We respond to Vermeer because he shows us a part of ourselves. He believed that artwhether it becomes accepted as a masterpiece or notshould speak to the soul, representing a truth so precisely as to make it undeniable to those who glance upon it. In today's Web-wide world, this is more important than ever as an endless stream of sights, sounds, even smells barrage our senses. More than ever, we need to find something that makes us pause and look inside, even for a second. Perhaps that is the importance of this beautifully rendered novel. It serves as a guidepost on the never-ending journey of self-discovery.
What does Girl in Hyacinth Blue suggest about the value, both personal and monetary, and the function and purpose of art?
Why would the author structure the novel in reverse chronology? What are the advantages or disadvantages of telling the story this way?
Discuss the different ways in which the paintingthe girlspoke to her numerous owners. Did the men view her differently than the women? Why do they all adoreneedthe girl in the painting so much? Does it provide for them something that is missing from their daily lives? Whose life did the painting affect the most?
What does the book have to say about the joys and difficulties of being an artist? On page 204, Vermeer speaks of the "the cost" of his painting to his household. Is it worth it? Why, so often, is an artist's genius recognized only after he or she has died?
Is there a piece of art that affects you in a special way? Elaborate.
Do you think Magdalena should have introduced herself to the couple who bought the painting? Is it better not to know the subject of a painting too closely?
While reading this book, did you imagine your own version of the painting? If so, describe it.
What do you think happened to the painting? Is Cornelius capable of destroying the painting or relinquishing it? Is he a failed human being or is he capable of redemption? Is the pictures rightful place in a museum?
Discuss the range and significance of the last line of the book.
In the end, does it matter whether or not the painting is a Vermeer?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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