In eight quasi-connected stories, Susan Vreeland delivers a fictional lesson on aesthetics. Set amidst human sorrow and historic chaos, the narrative follows an imagined Vermeer painting from the present day through 330 years of its provenance--beginning with its willful destruction in the 1990s and concluding with its inspired creation in the 1660s:
Chapter 1. 1995(?): in Pennsylvania, math teacher Cornelius Englebrecht burns the painting in his fireplace; 1942: in Amsterdam, from the Vredenburg home, German soldier Otto Engelbrecht loots the painting, hides it, and absconds with it to America.
Chapter 2. 1940: in Amsterdam, diamond merchant Sol Vredenburg buys the painting for his daughter Hannah as a gift for her 11th birthday.
Chapter 3. 1899: in Vreeland, engineer Laurens van Luyken, having originally purchased the picture as an anniversary gift for his wife, decides to give it to his daughter Johanna, engaged to the Amsterdamer Fritz.
Chapter 4. 1803: in The Hague, French aristocrat Gerard buys the painting from a Dutch noble; wife Claudine absconds with and sells it, without the documents attesting to its authenticity.
Chapter 5. 1717-18: from the floodwaters of Delfzijl, scholar Adriaan Kuypers flees with the painting to Oling where he relinquishes it to the farmer's wife, Saskia, who sells it to a dealer in Amsterdam.
Chapter 6. 1717: in Delfzijl, Aunt Rika, wife of a slave trader, offers the painting as a bribe to her nephew Adriaan to hide the evidence of his bastard child and keep her name respectable.
Chapter 7. 1665-8: in Delft, Vermeer begins and completes the painting of his daughter Magdelena.
Chapter 8. 1675: in Delft, Vermeer dies, and after his death his daughter Magdelena sells the painting to the local baker; later, in Amsterdam in 1696, Magdelena observes a "nice family" buying the painting at auction.
Topics For Discussion
1. The plot summary reveals that much of the picture's provenance remains unknown. Why do you think Vreeland leaves blank so much of the picture's history? Where do you imagine the painting was, say, between 1803 and 1890? Why do you think Vreeland places the painting in periods of history reflecting so many atrocities? What would have been gained--or lost--from this novel had the author placed the picture in more heroic moments of hu...
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... art is very self- rewarding and gives a great sense of accomplishment. Monetarily speaking, an artist such as Vermeer must paint in order to make a living and support his family of 11 children, “And there were other debts.” (pg. 209) Overall, the book describes the soul purpose of art to provide love, sorrow, warmth, depth and happiness to the soul and heart. The monetary wing is also very important because many of the owners had to sell the painting; no matter how much they treasured the painting, they still had to sell it because of monetary problems to keep them on their “feet.”
Elevated feelings toward emotional values may be difficult to let go of. Susan Vreeland’s ravishing novel reveals the true owner, tracing proprietors from the present to the past. The painting symbolizes something that each owner is missing in his or her life, whether it was personally or monetarily. Vermeer’s painting had a great affect on all the owners because something was missing in his or her life and the painting filled that hole. The last thing humanity would want to do, is let away fragments of their life for monetary reasons. Personal emotions are stronger than monetary rationalizations.
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