The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

lastpaintingFact and fiction blend seamlessly in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s remarkable novel about choices and consequences and the power of art to stir our deepest emotions.

New York lawyer Marty de Groot is the latest member of his family to take possession of a Dutch landscape painting called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’, believed to be the only surviving work by Sara de Vos, one of the few women admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke. It hangs above his bed in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife Rachel.

Family legend holds that the painting is “cursed”, responsible for the“300 years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness and stroke in his bloodline.” Ever since Pieter de Groot bought it, in 1637, at an auction, none of its owners  has lived past the age of 60.

Still, de Groot values his family heirloom. Every night he studies the painting, admiring the haunting quality of the scene in which a young girl emerges from a snowy thicket above a frozen river.  He knows it intimately. One night in 1957 something doesn’t seem quite right with the painting. The frame looks different. And the canvas is dirtier than normal. Closer examination shows it’s a fake; a meticulously crafted replacement for the original stolen while he and his wife had hosted a charity benefit event six months earlier.

When police fail to find the thief and there’s no sign of the painting on the black market, Marty resorts to a private investigator to find the forger and retrieve his lost masterpiece. And so begins a decades-long obsession.

The culprit is not a professional forger but an impoverished graduate student Ellie Shipley who goes to extraordinary lengths to understand the techniques of the Dutch masters she studies. In her tiny Brooklyn apartment she boils rabbit pelts to make glue and pulls  apart old canvases so she can build them up a layer at a time and so understand the process of creation. When approached by a secretive art dealer, she doesn’t see her copy as a forgery but as a tribute to the legacy of Sara de Vos.

She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty feet—that will come later. What she wants is topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old. She’s been known to take a safety pin and test the porosity of the paint and then bring the point to her tongue. Since old-world grounds contain gesso, glue, and something edible—honey, milk, cheese—the Golden Age has a distinctively sweet or curdled taste.

The past catches up with her in 2000 when, as an internationally renowned art historian, and curator of a gallery in New South Wales, Australia, she anxiously prepares for a show devoted to works by female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Two identical paintings are on their way to the gallery:  the original Sara de Vos  “At the Edge of a Wood,” and the forged version painted by Shipley nearly 50 years earlier. Ellie understandably  “feels certain this is the beginning of how it all ends”.

Between these two threads is a narrative set 300 years earlier in Amsterdam which reveals the life of Sara de Vos and the grief that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood.  Sara, widowed, bankrupt and mourning the death of her only child from the Plague, can find no relief in painting the tulips that her clients demand. Only in painting rural landscapes that are surreal allegories of loss can she find the strength to carry on.

The appeal of Smith’s book is the way he weaves three alternating timelines and locations to show how one painting exerts a powerful influence on three people across the centuries and across the world. One moment we’re in 1950s New York jazz clubs tracing de Groot’s attempts to track down the forger; the next we’re in mid seventeenth-century Holland as Sara de Vos struggles to regain her position in the all-powerful Guild and finally in Sydney in 2000 as forger and victim come face to face.

The Dutch sections were captivating. Smith spins an aura of melancholy around de Vos and tantalises us at the beginning of the book with a description of her supposed last work.

A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. . . . Her eyes are fixed on some distant point — but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank.

I was ready to believe not only did Sara de Vos exist, but so did her painting. Sadly both are as much an invention as Ellie Shipley’s forgery.  Although women were admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke  (without membership no painter could have sold their work) Sara de Vos herself never existed. She is a composite created from the ” biographical details of several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age” Dominic Smith found while researching through the Guild’s records, as he explained in an article for The Paris Review

Such detailed research gives the novel its feeling of authenticity but Smith is too canny a writer to let his knowledge of seventeenth-century painting techniques or the techniques of forgers, drag down the impetus of the narrative. Just as astutely he navigates between the mystery element and the history, delivering a multi-layered narrative that I found totally engrossing.

Footnotes

About the author: Dominic Smith is an Australian who has lived for much of his life in Texas. He has garnered several awards for his fiction.  His debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Book, and received the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Why I read this book: I love books about painting (Michael Frayn’s Headlong is a favourite) but when you bring in Amsterdam, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, it was hard to resist. Even harder when I read some the reviews of other bloggers including Lisa at ANZLitLovers (see review here) and found no-one had a bad word to say about this book.

Postscript: since publishing this post I’ve also discovered that Kim has reviewed the book. Here is her review

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 15, 2018, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. I’m pretty sure I googled her as well when this book first came out. Still haven’t read it, but your lovely review sure makes me want to!

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  2. I remember hearing about this book somewhere (on a blog or NPR, maybe?), and while it sounds interesting, I felt like I got that same old line about the different timelines not being equally strong, that readers liked to spend more time in one period than the other. Did you feel that way while reading?

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  3. I can see how you would have wanted to learn that she was a historical figure; I likely would have felt the same way. However, from a writer’s perspective, I imagine this situation would be easier to deal with, affording great scope with no concerns about specific accuracies and impressions. Enjoyed your thoughts on this one, especially as I enjoy books about painting(s) as well.

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    • Apparently Sara de Vos was an amalgam of several women painters he learned about while trawling through the archives of the Guild. So his novel was rooted in historical accuracy in many ways – eg, the control the guild had over what its members could paint and how they could sell their work. To be removed from the guild was to be destined for poverty. He obviously got to play more with her character and motivation. A happy balance I would say for a writer

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  4. Lovely review. I remember there being quite a buzz about this book last year. Something about the juxtaposition of art, history and literature really works, it’s like a magic formula that weaves the reader in its spell – I’m thinking Siri Hustvedt, Ali Smith and Donna Tartt specifically. Perhaps it’s just good luck, but this combination does seem to be successful wherever it’s deployed.

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  5. Sounds fascinating and funnily enough I was going to ask if Sara de Vos was real before I got to where you told us she’s not. I find forgery intriguing – if it’s done well enough to fool people then is it really worth less than the original? If so, is it the originality itself that gives a painting its value rather than the skill of the execution? It intrigues me that the old masters seemed to encourage their pupils to paint in their style, while now we take a different perspective, valuing originality over end result sometimes…

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  6. An absorbing narrative thread.

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  7. This book is currently languishing on my TBR pile – or one of them, at any rate! – and I have to admit that I bought it for the title, because it was about a painting and I hoped there might be an element of the Amsterdam of Tulip Fever or Girl with a Pearl Earring about it. I’m excited to read this now. If I can find it, I’ll be reading it sooner than I might have, thanks to your excellent review.

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  8. I googled Sara de Vos as well – so convincing was her story!

    The parts of this book that I enjoyed the most though, were the descriptions of the forgery and Ellie’s work to make the copy – fascinating stuff.

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  9. With my current interest in the world of art, fuelled by my work at a local gallery, this is definitely a book for me. I hadn’t heard of it before but it is definitely on the tbr now. Thank you.

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  10. I googled Sara de Vos, her characer was so convincing. I loved this novel, too, and hope to see more from Dominic Smith in the UK.

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  11. Glad you enjoyed. Reading your review reminded me of why I liked this book so much when I read it in 2016.

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  12. I too have not a bad word to say about this book. It was a wonderful surprise to read.

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  13. Thanks, I had run into it without paying much attention. Definitely adding it to my TBR

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  14. It’s a lovely book, I’m so glad you liked it too. (As you can tell from my review) I love books about art too, and I love Dutch art in particular… I fell in love with it in – of all places – Edinburgh, where they had one of those exhibitions of paintings on loan, and the signage was so good and so informative, I began to understand the symbolism in a way I had not before. (I have no education in art, just what I’ve learned myself over a lifetime of liking it). Reading your thoughtful review reminded me how much I enjoyed this book, so thank you:)

    Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith | Lizzy's Literary Life

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