Susan Vreeland dies at 71; blended art and fiction in 'Girl in Hyacinth Blue' and other novels

In 1971, a young high school English teacher named Susan Vreeland visited the Louvre and left with a pledge to make art her life’s companion — “to fill my mind with rich, glorious, long-established culture wrought by human desire, daring and faith.”

Once filled, her mind spun out a string of novels, blending visual art, literature and fiction, several that became New York Times bestsellers and established Vreeland as one of San Diego’s most admired authors. Her novel “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” inspired the 2003 television movie “Brush with Fate,” starring Glenn Close and Ellen Burstyn.

Vreeland died Aug. 23 in San Diego after heart surgery. She was 71.

Born in Racine, Wis., Vreeland grew up in North Hollywood, where trips to the library with her father, an aviation production manager, introduced her to the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant and the power of words.

“I was a too-sensitive child,” she later would write, “unable to distinguish between truth and fiction, prone to nightmares, gouged by cruelty.” Parental attempts at soothing her — “It’s only a story” — carried little weight then and would strike her as ironic later, after her own literary career took hold.

From her mother came a love of the visual arts, passed down through relatives who painted portraits and landscapes.

After the family moved to San Diego, a neighbor going out of town on a trip asked Vreeland to water the plants. The neighbor was Harriet Haskell, an English professor at San Diego State University, and her house was filled with art books, pottery and weavings that filled the 12-year-old with a sense of exotic wonder that decades later she turned into one of her first published short stories.

After majoring in literature at San Diego State, Vreeland spent 30 years in the classrooms at Madison and University City high schools teaching and began writing articles about art, culture and travel. But the idea of writing a book intimidated her until a friend suggested she take it one step at a time: “Can you write a chapter?”

Her first novel, “What Love Sees,” told the story of Forrest and Jean Holly, a blind couple who raised four children on a ranch in Ramona. It was turned into a TV movie in 1996.

“Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” which traces a purported Vermeer painting across the centuries and through the lives of the people who owned it, was published in 1999, while the author was battling lymphoma. It was a Times’ bestseller.

“True to the spirit of Vermeer, Vreeland uses art as a vehicle for capturing special moments in the lives of ordinary people,” Booklist said in its review. “True, too, to Vermeer’s legacy, she creates art that brings a unique pleasure into the lives of ordinary readers.”

Six more books followed, including “The Passion of Artemisia” in 2002, about an Italian Baroque painter; “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (2007), about Renoir; and “Clara and Mr. Tiffany” (2011), about the artist behind the leaded-glass lamps. All were Times’ bestsellers. Her books have been translated into more than 26 languages.

In a 2014 interview with the Union-Tribune, Vreeland said, “Writers have to be observant. Every nuance, every inflection in a voice, the quality of air even — they all get mixed up in this soup of the story developing in our minds. We can’t ignore these little intuitions because sometimes that’s where you find treasures.”

Vreeland is survived by her husband, Kip Gray.

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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