Fact 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.
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