Midnight Blue by Simone Van Der Vlught
Journey to Amsterdam, 1654, invites Simone Van Der Vlught in her novel Midnight Blue.
The 1600s in the Netherlands were considered the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East Indian Company was trading with the Far East, importing fine porcelain and a wealth of exotic spices and foods – including coffee and tea.
The painter Rembrandt is well established in Amsterdam, where one of his pupils is Carel Fabritius. Fabritius established a studio in Delft, but is most well known for his painting The Goldfinch, now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. In Delft he took on a student named Johannes Vermeer. All of these artists feature in one way and another in the novel.
At the centre of the story is Catrin Barentsdochter and Midnight Blue tells of her journey from a farm near the tiny village of De Rijp, near Alkmaar, where Catrin reluctantly marries a local farmer all the while longing for escape. The death of her husband precipitates the young widow’s flight, and she heads to Amsterdam looking for work. She acquires a job as the housekeeper to a wealthy family. Here she meets the brother of her employer and a love affair begins. The family is involved in trade with the Dutch East India Company, and before long Catrin finds herself alone again as her lover leaves on a ship, to be away for a year or more. Doubting his commitment to a future with her, Catrin leaves Amsterdam and finds work with another member of the family in a pottery in Delft. She is a talented painter and quickly becomes a valuable member of the studio.
At this time the blue and white porcelain imported from China is an expensive and very desirable luxury in the Netherlands. The potteries of Delft imitate the style but cannot find a way to achieve the beautiful clear white background. When the studio where Catrin works discovers the secret to achieving this white pottery and the deep midnight blue of the painting they are, in effect, producing much the same look as the Chinese porcelain – but of course it is much less expensive. The pottery trade in Delft flourishes – they begin to paint Dutch scenes, and the rest as they say “is history”.
Midnight Blue is both a love story and a fascinating portrait of life in 17th century Netherlands.