Fact and fiction blend seamlessly in The Last Painting of Sara de Voss, 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’.’ It’s believed to be the only surviving work by Sara de Vos, a Dutch painter in the seventeenth century who was one of the few women admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke.
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 at auction in in 1637, none of its owners has lived past the age of 60.
Nevertheless de Groot values his family heirloom,. He knows every inch of the canvas, studying it every night in his Manhattan apartment. He particularly admires the haunting quality of the scene that depicts a young girl emerging from a snowy thicket above a frozen river.
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.
She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty fee t— 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.
Her attention to detail comes to the attention of a secretive art dealer. He wants a copy of ‘At the Edge of a Wood’’. Ellie doesn’t view the resulting painting as a forgery but rather a tribute to the legacy of Sara de Vos.
The past catches up with Ellie Shipley in 2000 when she is an internationally renowned art historian. As curator of a gallery in New South Wales, Australia she is preparing a new exhibition 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 painting; At the Edge of a Wood, and the forged version that Shipley had created nearly 50 years earlier. Ellie understandably dreads being unmasked as the creator of the copy.
Dominic Smith weaves Into these two threads a narrative that is set 300 years earlier in Amsterdam . This reveals the life of Sara de Vos and the grief that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood.. At the time she was a widow, bankrupt and mourning the death of her only child from the plague. The tulip paints her clients demanded brought her no emotional relief. Only when she painted rural landscapes that were surreal allegories of loss could she find the strength to carry on.
What I loved about The Last Painting of Sarah de Voss was the way it wove together three alternating timelines and locations to show how one painting could exert 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. In the final section of the novel we move into the twenty-first century as the forger and de Groot 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 was Sara de Vos a real painter, but there really was a painting called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’. Sadly both are as much an invention as Ellie Shipley’s forgery. Although female painters were admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke (without membership no painter could have sold their work) Sara de Vos herself never existed.
Dominic Smith explained in an article for The Paris Review that de Vos is a work of fiction. She was created from biographical details found in records of the Guild of Saint Luke. Smith discovered that the work of female members of the Guild were often attributed to male painters, the women’s signatures painted over, their contribution to the Dutch Golden Age erased. Sarah de Vos grew out of what Smith called “gaps and silences.”
The background detail about Dutch painters and the way the Guild controlled their lives, give the novel a strong sense 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.
The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith: Footnotes
Dominic Smith is an Australian who has lived for much of his life in the USA. 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. It also earned him the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was his fourth novel, published in 2016. It was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. His most recent novel is The Electric Hotel, published in 2019, which evokes the history of the silent movie (sounds so good I’ve just bought a copy).
Note: This review was published originally in 2018. It has been updated with new images.