The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

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.

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

45 thoughts on “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

  • January 22, 2021 at 10:45 pm
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    This sounds fascinating. I am not supposed to be adding books to my TBR but I can find a used copy at a decent price, so I probably will go ahead and get it.

    Looking at the author’s other books, I see a couple that my husband might be interested in. Including The Electric Hotel.

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    • January 23, 2021 at 6:14 pm
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      I sympathise Tracy, I’m trying to restrain myself too with purchases. But the Electric Hotel does sound good

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  • January 22, 2021 at 4:46 pm
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    I’ve heard Susan at A Life in Books rave about this one too – I do love a book set in the art world, and have this one, but haven’t read it yet.

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    • January 22, 2021 at 9:11 pm
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      I wouldn’t have come across it but for some bloggers in Australia. There are so many good authors from Aus/New Zealand that we don’t see in the UK

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  • January 21, 2021 at 11:17 pm
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    Great review Karen. I haven’t read this but have had it on my radar (thought not in my TBR pile) for a long time. You have brought it to life well with this post.

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    • January 22, 2021 at 9:11 pm
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      I so wanted to look at the paintings described in the book !

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  • January 21, 2021 at 11:09 pm
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    Lovely review of a book I absolutely adored (read it when it was first published). I love Dutch art and had actually taken a few courses in it, where I discovered, much to my surprise, that there actually WERE women painters during the Golden Age. As you or one of your commentators pointed out, much of their work was signed by, or attributed to, male artists, usually a husband or relative. Iironically, surviving work by women artists from this period is now very highly sought after. I thought Smith did a fabulous job in conveying Sara’s life and times; he clearly knew the period but wasn’t pedantic about it. I enjoyed the modern timeline almost as much, as it had the element of suspense vis a vis the forgery.
    Although it has nothing to do with Sara de Vos, there’s a great self-portrait by Judith Leyster, painted around 1630, in Washington’s National Gallery. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.37003.html Leyster was a member of the Guild of St. Luke and quite well known; she retired as an active artist fairly early, however, in order to manage the studio of her husband, another artist. Are you surprised to learn that for centuries her self-portrait was attributed to Frans Hals, her better known contemporary?

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    • January 22, 2021 at 9:19 pm
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      Thanks for that link to the National Gallery exhibit; it was fascinating to discover she was a respected and esteemed painter when she was only 19 years old. How sad though that she stopped painting in her own right when she married

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

  • January 17, 2018 at 7:32 pm
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    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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  • January 17, 2018 at 7:25 pm
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    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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    • January 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm
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      I did get that feeling (I loved the Amsterdam mid 17th century chapters) though not so strongly that I wanted to skip the modern day sections.

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  • January 17, 2018 at 5:28 pm
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    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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    • January 19, 2018 at 12:02 pm
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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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  • January 16, 2018 at 7:11 pm
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    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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    • January 19, 2018 at 12:09 pm
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      Interesting, the only buzz I saw was on a few blog sites – I was thinking the book deserved more.

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  • January 16, 2018 at 6:24 pm
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    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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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:44 pm
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      Absorbing is a good word to apply to this book. Thanks for the comment

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  • January 16, 2018 at 4:39 pm
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    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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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm
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      Hope you do find it because it’s quite delightful. The cover is gorgeous but I wish I had a copy of Sara de Vos’ painting to admire every day.

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      • January 16, 2018 at 5:31 pm
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        Ah. Maybe someone who reads and loves the book, and is artistic, will create one. Meanwhile I’m going to have a search when I get home.

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  • January 16, 2018 at 12:16 pm
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    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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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:16 pm
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      Can you imagine what that apartment smelled like when she was doing all that boiling of pelts. There must have been a stench. I agree though Kate, it was fascinating to read that detail

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  • January 16, 2018 at 8:56 am
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    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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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:17 pm
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      Oh yes this is one for you without question – do you have any Dutch masters in the gallery where you work?

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      • January 16, 2018 at 5:29 pm
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        Yes, we have some Rembrandt sketches and full paintings by Stom and Steen and Hals and Flinck. There are a couple of Rubens as well, who almost counts.

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        • January 16, 2018 at 5:34 pm
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          It would be hard to do any work when surrounded by these

        • January 16, 2018 at 5:49 pm
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          You are so right, especially as it is my favourite genre.

  • January 16, 2018 at 8:47 am
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    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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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:18 pm
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      So did I! I was half expecting that she wouldn’t exist but so disappointed when I found I was right. I wanted to be completely wrong….

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  • January 16, 2018 at 7:05 am
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    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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  • January 16, 2018 at 5:59 am
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    I too have not a bad word to say about this book. It was a wonderful surprise to read.

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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:20 pm
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      How did this book not get more visibility? Everyone I’ve seen that reviewed it, loved it…

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  • January 16, 2018 at 1:14 am
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    Thanks, I had run into it without paying much attention. Definitely adding it to my TBR

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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:20 pm
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      it makes a change for you to add to your TBR – normally I’m the one adding to the TBR after seeing your reviews

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  • January 15, 2018 at 11:56 pm
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    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:)

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    • January 16, 2018 at 5:22 pm
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      The national gallery in Edinburgh is a treasure trove – I remember walking in there just to get away from some torrential rain and ending up spending several delightful hours among its collections. The beauty was that it wasn’t overwhelming like some galleries…..

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      • January 16, 2018 at 10:50 pm
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        Well, it was the highlight of my four days in Edinburgh (after the whisky tour, that is…)

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