Susan Vreeland


"Luncheon at the Boating Party"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew NOV 24, 2007)

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

In the summer of 1880 Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted the famed "Le dejeuner des canotiers." This evocative scene of fourteen people around the remains of the midday meal at La Maison Fournaise, and against a backdrop of boats on the Seine, depicts the bohemian milieu that inspired Renoir's art.

Susan Vreeland's radiant Luncheon of the Boating Party is a wonderful imagining of the process of creating that Renoir masterpiece. She puts these words into one person's mouth when the painting --finished except for a few highlights -- is first viewed by the picture's models and the public: "Marvelous, the stories you hint at in the interactions." The novel's Renoir replies, "There is no story. It's only a moment." Actually, both are true. Renoir gathered friends and models to pose them in a scene. But these people related in various ways to one another. Some were friends of long standing. Others were introduced during the consecutive weeks they gathered on the Maison balcony on Sundays. Thusly, the composition evolved and the dynamics and "multinamics" of the boating party did also. For instance, trouble with one female model, who did not want to be painted in profile, led to her dismissal and the addition of a young woman who would one day be Mrs. Renoir, although not until years after the completion of this painting.

Vreeland finely, vividly renders details of 1880 in France: ten years after Napoleon III declared war on Prussia and was defeated, Paris is still healing the human sufferings from the Prussian Siege it endured and the subsequent Commune revolt which killed thousands. But the deprivation, the starvation isn't with Parisians any longer. Consider these delectable morsels one character finds in a shop: "She surveyed shelves of syrups, chutneys of exotic fruits, spices, foie gras, tins of macaroons and madeleines, olives from Provence, honey from Languedoc, fruit compotes from Gascogne, mustard from Dijon, caviar from the Aquitaine, a wall of sausages from Auvergne." And besides food and spirits, they enjoy music, plays, regattas on the river, and colors on canvas, of course. The arts (including culinary) are burgeoning.

Renoir served in the war, and remembers his artist friend, Frederic Bazille, who died. But Renoir isn't a man who chooses to dwell on the tragedy of life. His works are a celebration of love. He says in the book that he has to feel love for the women -- and in fact everything -- he paints. In fact, he makes love to them, in a sense, when he brushes them onto his canvases. He blushes up cheeks, he doesn't paint blemishes, he idealizes. In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir is a man in love with painting and so he must love his subjects in paint and in life.

Certainly Renoir, thirty-nine years old that summer, had a string of loves, some of whom appear in the painting. But he, struggling financially, doesn't have a current lover. He is getting some pointed nudges about settling down but isn't quite ready yet. He tells Aline Charigot, one of the models, " 'Sometimes I don't know who I am as a painter.' " And he has plans to travel to " ' see the Titians in Venice, the Raphaels in Rome, and to discover the sources of Delacroix's colors in Algeria.' " Still, he feels Aline embodies a kind of integration of his previous loves and believes she would give him a peaceful home life if they were to marry. However, Aline is also only half his age, and Renoir understands she still has growing up to do.

Aline isn't the only woman in Renoir's romantic thoughts in 1880. There is also Alphonsine Fournaise, war widow and the daughter of the proprietors of La Maison Fournaise. Renoir honors her as a singular light, rather than a culmination of his previous loves. Luncheon of the Boating Party is told from the perspectives of Renoir and a number of the models. After Renoir, the reader visits Alphonsine's thoughts most, and that's as it should be since her likeness is arguably the heart of the boating party painting, and her character is likewise the heart of this book. Alphonsine is a true gift for the reader, for Vreeland interprets her as a woman of luminous inner beauty, a woman who loves unselfishly and without condition. She does everything she can to help Renoir with this great experimental undertaking. She encourages him when he has setbacks, she helps Aline feel comfortable when the latter joins the group, she even offers to let Renoir scrub her out of the painting so there won't be thirteen figures (untenable because it recalls the Last Supper, and there is a superstition that one person modeling for such a painting would die...like Judas). Alphonsine also, after some hesitation, tells Renoir her own secret about the war, wanting him to know her without reservation. This sensitive, generous woman definitely loves Renoir, but can their deep connection lead to a life together?

Vreeland writes marvelously! She coaxes to life so many big and little dramas of the boating party, and she does it with a confidence that truly adores and celebrates both Renoir's "Le dejeuner des canotiers" and the unknown mysteries of the real people immortalized in it. Like Renoir, Vreeland, it seems, does her best work out of love.

Don't miss Luncheon of the Boating Party.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

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"The Passion of Artemisia"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran MAR 16, 2002)

This past spring, my book club chose to discuss Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The meeting was to be my first since having a baby, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I consider myself an amateur art historian, consequently, I eagerly anticipated the discussion. The other members of the group also enjoyed the book and our discussion flowed freely. About halfway through, I piped up with some comment about how difficult it must have been for Griet to have abandoned work in the Vermeer house to life with a butcher. The other women looked at me worriedly. My friend, Michelle, finally rescued me. "Shannon," she said in a voice not unlike one would use with a pre-schooler who just mixed up Clifford and Barney, "you're thinking of Girl with a Pearl Earring. So much for my re-entry into intelligent adult life. You might think the unusual convergence of ideas that independently produced two such similar novels might scare any author away from again delving into the world of art history. It didn't however, scare Susan Vreeland, whose latest novel, The Passion of Artemisa, recounts the life and loves of one of the few famous female Italian Baroque painters, Artemisia Gentileschi. While it is neither as tight, nor as luminous as her first work, Vreeland has managed to put forth an enlightening and interesting look into the life of a very strong woman.

Read an excerpt from  The Passion of ArtemisiaWe meet an 18-year old Artemisia at the trial of her accused rapist. It probably would be more accurate to describe it as her trial since the 17th century idea of Roman justice includes torturing Artemisia in an effort to force a recantation and publicly examining her for evidence of virginity. The verdict sets in motion the events that affect the rest of her life. A marriage of convenience, the birth of her tempestuous daughter, the subject matter of her paintings, and her inclination to uproot herself and travel across Italy in search of wealthy patrons all stem from the treatment she receives after the trial, both from her family and from complete strangers. Throughout the book, Vreeland gives us delicious insight into the mind of a painter. In preparing to paint Florentine Archduchess Maria Madalena as Mary Magdalene, she says, "Her unconfined hair could show a barely repressed sensuality. I'd give a suggestion of the wild abandonment. . .by having one unconsciously bare foot-not a pretty foot, a working woman's foot-show beneath the hem of her gown." We see how highlighting the eye of a subject, or the folds of one's dress can affect the entire mood of the painting.

Since the novel is told purely from Artemisia's perspective, we see through her painterly eye every rich detail and subtle nuance. Upon glimpsing the cloak of Florence's Grandduke Cosimo II de Medici Artemisia wishes, "Oh, to do a painting with such exquisite detail and that brilliant green, to build up the sheen with layers of glaze between paint no thinner than the silk itself, with brush hairs so fine their trailings would look like silk thread." While having Artemisia narrate her own story lends insight into the intimate relationship between artist and canvas, it also unfortunately limits the development of the other story, the one of Artemisia herself. We see her only through her eyes and through her interactions with others. It would be interesting to have had the perspective of other characters when, for example, she discovers her father's complicity in the trial of her accused rapist. Much of the later part of the story involves Artemisia's relationship with her daughter, Palmira, and Artemisia's struggle to inculcate in her a sense of the passion for art that so drives Artemisia. The artistic drive is lost on Palmira and it would have been interesting to hear her perspective as Artmesia tends to come across as selfish and "stage-mothery" in her drive to shape Palmira's destiny.

In Artemisa, Vreeland has created a truly strong female character, someone out of character with the times, someone who defines herself by her art, rather than by her marriage or her religion. When comparing herself with her husband, an artist of lesser talent, she says, "If a person loves something above all else, if he values the work of his heart and hands, then he should naturally, without hesitation, pour into it his whole soul, undivided and pure. Great art demands nothing less." Vreeland has wisely resisted the impulse to imbue Artemisia with a 21st century mentality, rooting her firmly in the values of the 17th century. Only rarely does the psychology of victimhood appear, once with a kindly nun admonishing Artmesia to "paint out the pain." Considering the strained relationship between Artemisia and her father, it would also have been easy to pepper the story with nasty male characters. While Vreeland throws in her fair share, Artemisia does encounter some kindly and helpful men including Galileo and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger. Her friendly relationship with Galileo provides an interesting historical sub-context to her artistic life and underscores just how extraordinary a time it was.

Perhaps it was due to just this extraordinary time that art historians lost track of Artemisia of hundreds of years. Her works discounted or attributed to other artists, Artemisia Gentileschi drifted into obscurity. Vreeland freely admits that The Passion of Artemisia is a fictionalized history, having created some characters, and condensed several others down into one. She stays true, however, to the spirit of Artmesia Gentileschi who sought to create art with "invenzione," the flash of brilliance that forced others to stop in their tracks. In Vreeland's capable hands, Artemisia's whole life is a flash of invenzione.

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"Girl in Hyacinth Blue"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 14, 2001)

"Look. Look at her eye. Like a pearl. Pearls are favorite items of Vermeer. The longing in her expression. And look at that Delft light spilling onto her forehead from the window."

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Imagine that there is one unaccounted painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer hidden away in a professor's study. Professor Cornelius Englebrecht has forsaken a normal life for the love of this painting and the shame of owning it. His father, a Nazi, had acquired it by looting a home after sending its Jewish occupants off to the trains. ("I saw the trains. That's all I knew.") Although Englebrecht does not believe his father is innocent, he is unable to turn over the painting and expose him. For Professor Englebrecht is consumed with the belief that this is an undocumented Vermeer.

Although the sheer beauty of the painting should be enjoyment in and of itself, for this owner, the true beauty of the painting lies in its origins. And he still earnestly needs another person to conspire with him on its creator and, one can assume, help alleviate his guilt. And so for the first time ever, he invites a colleague from the art department to share his secret.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue reveals the painting's history story by story and in reverse chronological order so that we too can wonder if it is really a Vermeer. Each chapter tells a separate account of the home in which it temporarily resides providing a panorama of Dutch history, and as well as exploring the importance of a single painting and what makes it a thing of beauty for its owner.

In the first story called "Love Enough" we see the technical details of the painting through Englebrecht's eyes. In the next story, the owner is about the same age as the girl in the painting and of all the painting's admirers, she comes closest to really understanding the girl at the time of the painting.

In "A Night Different from All Other Nights," Hannah Vrendenburg and her family are getting ready for Passover. The Germans occupy Amsterdam and have now started to take away Jewish families from her part of the city. Despite this, her grandmother wants to know why Hannah is so silent all the time and asks questions like it's another era, a time when girls are supposed to wonder whom they will marry, confide in girlfriends and learn household chores for future husbands. Hannah can't tell them about what happens to best friends in war time. Nor can she begin to describe the things she wishes she could wish for. Like the quietness of the girl in the painting who sits looking out the window, she too is wishing to be "capable of doing some great wild loving thing." But for now Hannah has to think about taking care of her father's pigeons. It's been eight months since the decree that made it illegal for Jews to own pigeons and Hannah knows what has to be done, a task that no one should expect a teenage girl to do.

"Morningshine" is one of my favorite stories for its visual details of the flooded landscape and the Dutch people's adaptations to it. Saskia, with the help of her two small children, has just brought all the family possessions, including the milking cow, to the second story of their home to wait out the flood while her husband, Stijn, worked on the Dike for two days straight. That morning, she notices a neighbor's horse floating in the water, so Stijn leaves to help out the horse. "He reached for his reefer and climbed out the north window on the other side of the house where he'd tied up his skiff." But he finds a present waiting for him in the skiff - a baby and a painting with instructions to sell it.

There are five more equally original and moving stories revealing the heartfelt desires triggered by the Girl in Hyacinth Blue. As the painting travels through time and exchanges hands Vreeland brings alive each poignant tale as to how the painting ends up being traded, bartered or given away. Until we come to its origination and meet the girl that is in the painting. "Up there, high up above the town, she had longings no one in the family knew. No one would ever know them, she thought, unless perhaps a soul would read her face..."

Besides being a wonderful book to read, I enjoyed learning more about Vermeer's works. Look for the links under the "Book Marks" section below to some sites on his artwork. Vreeland's fictional undiscovered painting of "a painting of a young girl sewing at a window" seems just as real as any of his paintings, she gets credit for creating a successful imitation through words.

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Read an excerpt of Girl in Hyacinth Blue



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Non-fiction:

  • What English Teachers Want

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Susan VreelandSusan Vreeland has been a resident of California since that age of two and has lived in San Diego since she was twelve. She is a graduate of the San Diego State University and taught high school English in the San Diego Unified School System since 1969 as well as ceramics since 1986. She retired recently after a 30-year career.

Her short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Calyx, Crescent Review, So To Speak and other journals. She received Inkwell Magazine's Grand Prize for Fiction in 1999. Girl in Hyacinth Blue was a finalist for Book Sense Book of the Year in 1999, a nominee for the Dublin International Literary Award. Girl in Hyacinth Blue a won the Theodore Geisel Award presented by The San Diego Book Awards for the "best of the best" and in 2002, Vreeland won this award again for The Passion of Artemisia.

It was during uninterrupted days of treatment for lymphoma that she conceived the idea for Girl in Hyacinth Blue, as she poured over art books. Vermeer attracted her because her name is Dutch and she wanted to know more about her heritage. She says that the act of creating the novel allowed her "to imagine my way out of my dire circumstances and into the lives of the characters, creating a beautiful painting that survives longer than the brief life of its creator, and wanting to create for myself a work of art that would outlast my own threatened life span, to go back to my roots in Holland to discover my place of origins on this planet before I would have to leave it."

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