Obituaries

Susan Vreeland, 71, novelist with a passion for art

Ms. Vreeland in an undated photo.

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Ms. Vreeland in an undated photo.

NEW YORK — Susan Vreeland, who drew on her love of art to fashion well-regarded novels about paintings and those who paint or own them, died Aug. 23 in San Diego. She was 71.

The cause was complications of heart surgery, her longtime agent, Barbara Braun, said.

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Among Ms. Vreeland’s best-known books is her second novel, “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” (1999), about a fictional painting that may be a lost Vermeer. It traces the painting’s various owners through history, illuminating them, their times, and the artwork. She wrote the book while being treated for lymphoma.

“I remember the first time, after a bone-marrow transplant and the 100 days of solitude and confinement that followed, the world was glorious,” she once told an interviewer. “Every little blade of grass was sticking up and doing its part to make the world glorious, every breeze was a blessing.”

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She added, “So anything in the book that is an intense description of landscape, that shows tenderness, it is because of the tenderness toward the world that I was feeling myself.”

Ms. Vreeland was born Jan. 20, 1946, in Racine, Wis . Her father, William Vreeland, was a manager in the aerospace industry; her mother, the former Esther Jancovius, had a longstanding interest in art.

Ms. Vreeland lived much of her life in San Diego, where she taught high school for many years, retiring in 2002. She graduated from San Diego State University.

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Her first book, “What Love Sees,” came out in 1988, but it was “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” that brought her wide attention.

“Intelligent, searching, and unusual, the novel is filled with luminous moments,” Katy Emck said in reviewing the book in The New York Times. In 2003, the book was turned into a made-for-television movie, “Brush With Fate,” starring Ellen Burstyn and Glenn Close.

Ms. Vreeland’s husband, Joseph Gray, whom she married in 1988, recalled how a particular scene in that book came about. He had already gone to bed one night when Ms. Vreeland, working late, nudged him with a question.

“She asked me, ‘How can I get a baby and a painting into a small rowboat during a flood?’ ” Gray said by e-mail. “My reply was that was crazy, to endanger a baby in a small, unsteady boat, as well as a painting, and for what purpose? Readers would not believe it — it would never fly. Her reply: ‘It does not have to fly, just float.’ She went on to craft one of the more powerful scenes in the novel.”

Ms. Vreeland, who is also survived by a sister, Nancy, continued to write novels grounded in art, among them “The Passion of Artemisia” (2002), which drew on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi; “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (2007), inspired by the Renoir painting; and “Lisette’s List” (2014), about a young woman with a love of artworks.

Ms. Vreeland once explained her own love of art and handicrafts this way: “That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, can survive natural catastrophe, neglect, and even mistreatment, has always filled me with wonder.”

Susan McBeth, who runs Adventures by the Book, a company in San Diego that arranges tours led by authors, said she was always struck by Ms. Vreeland’s energy and enthusiasm. On a tour to France, the stops included the Rodin Museum in Paris, and Ms. Vreeland came up with the idea of having each couple on the tour strike the pose of the sculpture “The Kiss.”

Ms. Vreeland wrote ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ (1999), about a fictional painting that may be a lost Vermeer, while being treated for lymphoma.

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“She pulled aside each husband on the tour, and then helped place the respective spouse on his lap, and then posed their heads and hands,” McBeth said by e-mail. “Each couple on the tour posed that way, and pretty soon, a long line of tourists [whom we had never met] started lining up.”

They included a newlywed couple from Brazil.

“They looked into each other’s eyes like only newlyweds can do,” McBeth said, “and then I snapped a photo just as Suzi sat next to the bride with her head on the bride’s shoulder, holding up a photo of ‘The Kiss.’ ”

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