Jennifer S. Alderson interviews Arjan van Heemsvliet from The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery
It is an honor to interview preeminent art dealer Arjan van Heemsvliet today. Since the publication of The Lover’s Portrait, readers have wanted to know more about this very private man’s personal life and family history. Arjan is embarrassed by their interest as he shuns attention, preferring to help others from behind the scenes. As the author, I feel responsible and hope by giving Arjan a platform to share the motivation behind his actions in my art mystery, readers will leave him in peace.
He has agreed to meet with me at Galerie Van Heemsvliet, his art gallery on the Spiegelgracht in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Recent developments make him reluctant to leave it for long. It is April 1942 and the Nazis occupation of the city makes travel difficult, yet I am miraculously on time for our appointment. Though we are speaking in Dutch, I have translated the interview into English for the convenience of interested readers.
JA: Mister Van Heemsvliet, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know how reluctant you are to step into the spotlight.
AvH: Chuckles uneasily. Yes, it is true I prefer not to be the center of attention. Though since the publication of that blasted art mystery, my life has been exposed for all to see.
JA: Shifts uncomfortably in her chair. Yes, well, I apologize again for any discomfort I’ve caused you. That was never my intention. Why don’t we start off simple; where and when were you born?
AvH: I was born in Urk on February 13, 1910. When I was growing up, it was a fishing village on a small island in the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea). A series of horrific floods led our government to build a massive dike which could control the sea’s level. The Afsluitdijk was completed in 1932 – a few months before I left Urk – and the Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel). Three years ago, in 1939, our island was connected to the mainland by a series of dikes and polders. Though mentally Urk is still a deeply religious island community which owes its existence to the sea.
JA: What influence did your family have on you, your choices, your life?
AvH: Turns crimson as his eyes widen. The nerve on you! He sighs then takes a long sip of tea before answering. My parents’ life choices deeply influenced my own. My father, the Reverend Johannes van Heemsvliet, was senior pastor of the largest Protestant church in Urk, and as such was one of the most important leaders in our community. He taught me being a leader isn’t about ordering people around, but being a pillar your brethren can lean on for support in their time of need. He also began a trust fund for the widows and children of fishermen who did not return. My mother Meike cooked for the soup kitchen three days a week and spent most of her free time sewing clothes for orphans. These core values – charity, kindness and integrity – learned early on, shaped me and my later life goals.
Because of my upbringing, helping others has always been a motivating force in my life. That is why I sit on the Board of Directors of six charities and cultural institutions, as well as donate generously to twenty more. When I can, I serve food in a soup kitchen close to my home. It takes up most of my free time, yet is extremely rewarding. It is a wonderful way to connect with like-minded individuals. I’ve met most of my friends and clients while volunteering. I am sorry to say the Nazis presence in Amsterdam has caused many to flee or go into hiding.
Unfortunately my father’s high standing in the community is the reason I had to leave Urk. In 1932, I opened up an art gallery in Amsterdam. I am pleased to say it is quite successful. Being surrounded by such beauty and working with so many talented artists, has brought much joy to my life. However what I appreciate most about Amsterdam is I can be myself and not have to worry about my lifestyle choices getting back to my father. My youthful transgressions hurt him enough.
JA: Do you believe that falling in love is a gift or a curse?
AvH: To find your soulmate and recognize you both want to be together is the most magical experience in the human existence. Unfortunately for me, love has been a cross to bear. My choice of partner destroyed my relationship with my father, and as a consequence the rest of my family. I miss them terribly, especially my youngest brother, Gerard. He’s such a kind soul. Gerard is currently studying to be a missionary; I am so proud of him.
I digress. You asked me if love is a curse or gift. It shouldn’t be, yet my love is a source of shame, unacceptable to most Dutch. The Nazis have made it a crime punishable by forced castration, hard labor or concentration camps. I’ve met my soulmate, yet to the outside world he is nothing more than my employee. For both our sakes, our relationship must remain hidden if we want to survive this bloody war.
JA: How do you feel about your family, now that you’re an adult?
AvH: I have come to terms with my father’s standpoint. His position in Urk made it impossible for him to accept me openly. I cannot blame him. If he had forgiven me, he would have offended most of his parishioners and possibly been replaced as pastor. Without the church, his life would have been meaningless.
I try not to think about my family too often. Though since the war started, I’ve reconnected with Gerard by letter. He sends me updates about my mother and siblings. Since the Nazis occupied the country, news is often a mix of fact and rumor. It’s good to know how they are doing during this difficult time. And to know my brother still loves me enough to risk writing as often as he does, gives me hope the others may one day accept me for who I am, as well.
JA: When you walk into a room, what do you notice first? Second?
AvH: A smile lights up his face as he automatically gazes up at his gallery walls, generously filled with colorful paintings by French, Russian and Dutch artists. His eyes rest on Jan van Goyen’s Boy With Harp before he answers. Why the art on the walls, of course! I am lucky to have a wide circle of friends with exquisite taste in modern and contemporary art, and the money to be able to afford the best. The colors, styles and brush technique of Cezanne, Kirchner, Chagall, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, and the like always make my heart sing.
Secondly, I look to see who is open to life. You can tell quite a bit about a person by how they react when someone new enters the room. I am drawn to those who smile warmly and chat easily. It’s partly envy; I wish I could be like them, yet I’m too closed.
JA: When you walk into a room, what do you expect people to notice about you?
AvH: Nothing. I always do my best to blend in.
JA: What do you consider your special talent?
AvH: Discovering gifted young artists and connecting them with buyers who will appreciate their beauty, is my great talent and pleasure. I’m privileged to know many brilliant painters, sculptors and engravers. And because of my charity work and gallery, I have met a plethora of art lovers who became clients and later, friends. I am a lucky man.
JA: What are you most afraid of?
AvH: People using my sexual preference against me. It’s happened too often in the past so I now do everything I can to hide it. I prefer those around me to think of me as asexual, than go through the humiliation of being outed again.
JA: What do you value most?
AvH: Friendship and integrity. Those who stick by your side even when they know your deepest secrets – those are the people you need to cherish. I’d lay down my life for my true friends because I know they’d do anything for me, as well.
JA: How do you feel about your life right now? Is there anything you would change if you could?
AvH: I am ready for this damn war to be over so everything can go back to normal. Life was already stressful enough before German tanks rolled into the Netherlands, two years ago. Since then, the occupation of Amsterdam has only intensified: bombing raids, food shortages, neighbors arrested, others disappearing in the night. Not to mention it’s wreaking havoc on my business. Since the summer of 1940, my clientele is almost exclusively Germans or sympathizers on the lookout for bargains.
My friends are gone. They’ve either been arrested, fled the city, or gone into hiding. It has been a most difficult time. I’m becoming more tempted to leave. I have a second home in Marseille. The south of France is still a Free Zone, but I will have to travel through occupied Belgium and Northern France to reach it. If only I could figure out how to get out of Amsterdam without my blackmailer discovering I’d left. Until I can be sure my art collection is safe from prying eyes, I cannot leave. I made a promise to too many and have to keep my word. That’s how I was raised.
The Lover’s Portrait Book Blurb
Missing masterpieces, Nazi blackmailers and a pesky amateur sleuth.
When a Dutch art dealer hides the stock from his gallery – rather than turn it over to his Nazi blackmailer – he pays with his life, leaving a treasure trove of modern masterpieces buried somewhere in Amsterdam, presumably lost forever. That is, until American art history student Zelda Richardson sticks her nose in…
Winner of the Silver Cup in the Rosie’s Book Review Team 2017 Awards, named one of The Displaced Nation’s Top 36 Expat Fiction novels of 2016, and number 14 in the BookLife Prize for Fiction 2016’s Mystery category.
The Lover’s Portrait BUY LINKS:
About the Author
Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There she earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.
Jennifer’s travels and experiences color and inform her internationally-oriented fiction following the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. Her first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu: A Backpacker Mystery, is a travel fiction adventure through Nepal and Thailand. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, her second book, is a suspenseful “whodunit?” that transports readers to wartime and present-day Amsterdam. In the third installment, Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery, art, religion, and anthropology collide in a murder mystery set in Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands.
Her travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler, is a must read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to – travel to Nepal and Thailand.