Richard stands transfixed by a painting. It is of a girl wearing a blue shawl. As the light pours over her face, she sits forever in quiet serenity, watching and waiting for ... What? Richard is captivated. It looks like a Vermeer, but how can it be? There are but a few Vermeers, and all are well documented. It doesn't matter, really, for the painting sings to his soul.
It is a Vermeer, the owner, Cornelia, insists. Prove it, Richard says. I've spent a lifetime doing just that, she says with a hint of pride, a hint of excitement, maybe some unease. And she sets about telling him the story of the painting she calls The Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
In Brush With Fate, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production to premiere at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS (WTOL-TV, Channel 11 in Toledo), Glenn Close plays Cornelia to Thomas Gibson's Richard. They and Ellen Burstyn are listed as the stars, but that is for convention only. The star is the painting and the emotions it inspires.
Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo (Empire Falls) adapted Brush with Fate for television from Susan Vreeland's novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
In the press materials, Vreeland explained that she got the idea for her story when she was wandering through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She spied a small glass pitcher labeled “Venetian, 2nd Century,” and she began to wonder about the many hands that had held, used, and treasured that pitcher all those years.
Thinking about that connection, she got curious about the stories behind each painting in the gallery, the people who sat for them, how they felt, what they thought about, whether their clothes were itchy. She mused about the owners of the paintings. Did they, she thought, love them or just love the idea of owning them?
The seeds of a novel were planted.
The painting, of course, does not exist. It is merely an axis around which a story spins. However, it's a compelling story, and by the time Brush with Fate ends, viewers will want to find a Vermeer, to see if it affects them as it does the characters. (For the record, the Toledo Museum of Art has none.)
The story starts in today's world at an unnamed private school, where Richard has just taken a job as an art teacher. Everyone is welcoming and fairly normal. Then there's Cornelia, who teaches European history. With her Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, her constant research, and her standoffish attitude, the woman is anything but welcoming.
She does, however, visit his studio and insist that he come to the home she shares with her ailing father. It is there that Cornelia introduces Richard to a glorious painting and tells him its tale.
She starts with the story of Laurens and Digna (Jan Decleir and Betty Schuurman), a wealthy merchant and his wife, in 1800s Vreeland, the Netherlands. Their only daughter is about to be married, and Digna is trying to think of a gift for the young couple, something that will always be a connection between the two homes.
Her thoughts take her to the painting that Laurens stares at every night, a painting of a beautiful girl, sitting silently, waiting.
Laurens refuses to give the painting up, and Digna's fears blossom. Who is the girl? What does she mean to the man she calls husband? Does she even want to know?
After a long night of remembering, Laurens realizes why the painting holds him in thrall. He looks at what he may lose if he keeps the work. And he makes his choice.
Laurens is not the first person the painting has captivated. Before him, it was Saskia, the wife of a potato farmer. How did such a work fall into the hands of a farmer? And before that a serving wench, and before that ...
The painting has many stories, and Cornelia tells them to Richard, until there is only one left.
Whether the painting is real or not is beside the point. What matters, Vreeland seems to be saying, is that great art transcends time. There's something about it that speaks to each of us in different ways. What one person will ignore, another will barter away her family's future to keep.
With its series of stories, Brush with Fate makes this point, and makes it well, in an entertaining, fascinating manner.