Passion of Artemisia (Vreeland)

Author Bio
Education—San Diego State University
Awards—Inkwell Grand Prize, Fiction, 1999; San Diego Book
  Awards' Theodore Geisel Award and Best Novel of the Year,
Currently—lives in San Diego, California, USA

Susan Vreeland's short fiction has appeared in journals such as The New England Review, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, Calyx, Manoa, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her first novel, What Love Sees, was broadcast as a CBS Sunday night movie in 1996. Ms. Vreeland is the recipient of several awards, including a Women's National Book Association First Place Award in Short Fiction (1991) and a First Place in Short Fiction from New Voices (1993). Inkwell Magazine for her short story, "Gifts". She teaches English literature, creative writing, and art in San Diego public schools, where she has taught since 1969. (From the publisher.)

"When I was nine, my great-grandfather, a landscape painter, taught me to mix colors," Susan Vreeland recalls in an interview on her publisher's web site. "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?"

As a grown woman, Vreeland found her own magical way of translating her vision of the world into art. While teaching high school English in the 1980s, she began to write, publishing magazine articles, short stories, and her first novel, What Love Sees. In 1996, Vreeland was diagnosed with lymphoma, which forced her to take time off from teaching—time she spent undergoing medical treatment and writing stories about a fictional Vermeer painting.

Creative endeavor can aid healing because it lifts us out of self-absorption and gives us a goal," she later wrote. In Vreeland's case, her goal "was to live long enough to finish this set of stories that reflected my sensibilities, so that my writing group of twelve dear friends might be given these and know that in my last months I was happy—because I was creating."

Vreeland recovered from her illness and wove her stories into a novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The book was a national bestseller, praised by the New York Times as "intelligent, searching and unusual" and by Kirkus Reviews as "extraordinarily skilled historical fiction: deft, perceptive, full of learning, deeply moving." Its interrelated stories move backward in time, creating what Marion Lignana Rosenberg in Salon called "a kind of Chinese box unfolding from the contemporary hiding-place of a painting attributed to Vermeer all the way back to the moment the work was conceived."

Vreeland's next novel, The Passion of Artemisia, was based on the life of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, often regarded as the first woman to hold a significant place in the history of European art. "Forthright and imaginative, Vreeland's deft recreation ably showcases art and life," noted Publishers Weekly.

Love for the visual arts, especially painting, continues to fire Vreeland's literary imagination. Her new novel, The Forest Lover, is a fictional exploration of the life of the 20th-century Canadian artist Emily Carr. She has also written a series of art-related short stories. For Vreeland, art provides inspiration for living as well as for literature. As she put it in an autobiographical essay, "I hope that by writing art-related fiction, I might bring readers who may not recognize the enriching and uplifting power of art to the realization that it can serve them as it has so richly served me."

• Two other novels relating to Vermeer were published within a year of Girl in Hyacinth Blue: The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.

• Vreeland lives in San Diego with her husband, a software engineer. She taught high school English and ceramics for 30 years before retiring to become a full-time writer. ("More" and "Extras" from Barnes & Noble.)

• Her own words:
Artemisia Gentileschi burst upon the post-Renaissance art scene with all the drama of an Italian opera. When I learned that she was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence, producing paintings of startling invention which expressed a feminist sensibility, and the first woman to make her living solely by her brush, and furthermore, that she was raped at seventeen by her father's friend, her teacher, I knew I'd found material for a novel.

Rather than focusing on the rape or using a broad brush to paint a sweeping biography, I chose to explore the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life, and the connecting tissue of beauty, art, spirituality, and wholeness.

Such a focused work of fiction about an historical person must be a work of the imagination, true to the time and character always, but true to facts only so long as fact furnishes believable drama. To suit my purposes, I combined actual people into composite characters, eliminated others, and invented still others. Though I used the trial record, her paintings, and her associations with Galileo, Cosimo de' Medici II, and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger as recorded in art histories, I imagined the personalities and interactions of Artemisia, her father and her husband, and devised dramatic moments that would propel a plot.

This is the process by which an historic figure moves from yellowed archives to scholarship, and from academic interest to heroic popular legend, becoming more complex and beloved as a result. With The Passion of Artemisia, I wanted to participate in giving Artemisia her cultural moment. ("In her own words" from an out-of-print edition.)

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