You may have read similar earlier works like The Girl With the Pearl Earring, or Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, but Dominic Smith’s novel is in a class of its own.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 290 pages, $26
By Roberta Silman
In this, his fourth novel, the Australian writer Dominic Smith has written a wonderfully interesting, ambitious, yet not wholly convincing novel that has already found its way to the New York Times bestseller list and has enthralled critics all over the country. With good reason. In what at first seems to be an unusual piece of scholarly fiction about art and forgery, Smith surprises us by creating two women artists whose creativity and longing for love disarm us almost completely.
They are Sara De Vos and Ellie Shipley, the first a greatly gifted painter in Holland during the first half of the 17th century, the only woman member of the prestigious St. Luke’s Artists’ Guild, and the second, an Australian girl brought up in very modest circumstances in Sydney who is finishing her dissertation at Columbia in art history and is also a supremely talented painter. Her longing to paint leads her into the shady art world of Manhattan in the 1950s where she is employed as a “copyist,” or, as some would have it, a forger.
As we read Smith’s careful, precise prose, we can feel these two strong women sneaking into our hearts when we least expect it. And as the book progresses we realize that this is a novel with many layers; it is about far more than art and fakes and identity, it is also about women’s rights and class and love and the need to leave a mark in the world. And when we close the book, we realize that Smith has done what his protagonists admire most: he has created vivid portraits of the art scene in 17th century Holland, in New York in the mid-50s, and in Sydney in 2000 with absolute command of the complicated story he has chosen to tell.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos begins — brilliantly — in 1957 when corporate lawyer Marty De Groot, who comes from old New York Dutch money, and his rather wan wife are giving their annual party for their favorite charity, and Rachel de Groot decides to call Rent-a-Beats to liven things up a bit. When the Beats arrive they cause more chaos than expected, an unlikely colleague comes to Marty’s rescue, and soon the rowdy hippies have been thrown out of the De Groot penthouse. Done. But that very night Marty notices that the frame for the painting that has been hanging over his marriage bed for generations looks slightly different. Soon afterwards he realizes that the original painting has been stolen and what is there now is a forgery.
The painting, At the Edge of the Wood, has not brought the De Groot family much luck: people died young while sleeping under it, Rachel has had two miscarriages, his career has been stalled. The truth is that he and Rachel are more content since the original has disappeared. But principles are principles, especially in Marty’s sphere, and he becomes obsessed not only with finding the original but also with how this happened. Were the Beats involved? Maybe, maybe not. Of course the police are little help, so he hires a private detective, and suddenly we are in the midst of a chase, filled with suspense and details about how paintings and their copies come into existence. At the same time Smith takes us back to Holland and the story of how the original was created, thus revealing the tragic and ultimately triumphant story of Sara De Vos.
But it is really Ellie who lies at the center of the novel: her confusion about her past, her loneliness, her total absorption in her craft, her naiveté as she tries to maneuver through academia, and her sheer innocence in the ways of love. In her Smith has created a wonderful “modern” woman who defies all our expectations because, as in most of us complicated souls, these conflicting traits don’t add up. Here is Ellie at the beginning making a list of forgery techniques:
Ground recipes and methods for stripping back the upper layers while preserving the signature cracks and fissures below. Then there are the forms of imitation, the “flyspecks” that can be achieved on the back of a painting if epoxy glue is mixed with amber-tinted pigment and applied with a pinhead in a suitable pattern. Flies are drawn to the sugars in a painting’s varnish and the effect is to suggest a neglected painting languishing in an attic for decades. Or the blue chalk marks on the back of the frame, partially erased by hand, that suggest previous auction sales. So much of the forger’s dominion is theater and subtext, she thinks, a series of enticements. An obscure provenance, suggested by visual cues, is irresistible to a certain kind of buyer — it becomes a story of their own discernment, of plucking a second self from the folds of history.
And Smith’s grasp of what Manhattan was like at end of the 1950s is uncannily good. It is a world I knew as a young writer working at a magazine, a world in which I often observed people like Marty and his friends. And where I also knew loners like Ellie. So I should have been warned. But I must confess I was shocked at how the 1950s story plays out. It is a sheer pleasure to read, but it is also cruel, so cruel that it took my breath away, and I simply couldn’t believe there would be a hiatus of forty years before Marty and Ellie would meet again. But this is Smith’s novel, not mine. And the depth of my surprise gives you a clue as to the power of his writing.
I have only one other reservation. There were moments when I felt the whiff of too much research slowing the story, especially in the parts set in Sydney in 2000 when Ellie, now a respected figure in her field, is mounting an important exhibition of Dutch painters. I wasn’t sure we needed to know so much about the pompous figure who packed one painting and how he did it.
Where Smith shines is when he writes about the actual brushwork, the slow arduous act of creating a painting — even a copy — which resembles the very task he has set himself: that of writing a memorable literary work. There are so many parallels between art and writing, yet he reminds us of them with a very light hand. There are also parallels between art and love and friendship. Each time we interact with another person is like a piece of careful brushwork, with enormous consequences. Not many contemporary novelists understand this as well as Smith does. And that he can convey the importance of that brushwork in the lives of those who inhabited 17th Holland as well as in our modern times is truly remarkable.
You may have read similar earlier works like The Girl With the Pearl Earring, or Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, but Smith’s novel is in a class of its own and should be valued for the very qualities that often are ignored: its quiet patience, its ability to use history in a fictional way, and the sheer breadth of the undertaking. I doubt that you will find yourself looking at those marvelous Dutch paintings of the 17th century in the same way after reading this riveting book. Or without remembering Sara’s thoughts as she set out to paint her last painting, which are as contemporary as if she were setting to her task today:
She knows this will be the last thing she ever paints. It briefly overwhelms her with the magnitude of choosing the right subject. Before that first line of pale chalk, before the underdrawing fleshes out into shapes and proportions, there is a stab of grief for all the things she didn’t get to paint. The finches wheeling in the rafters of the barn, Cornelis reading in the arbor, Tomas bent over the roses in the flower garden, apple blossoms, walnuts beside oysters, Kathrijn in the full bloom of her short life, Barent sleeping in a field of lilacs, the Gypsies in the market, the late-night revelers in the taverns … Every work is a depiction and a lie. We rearrange the living, exaggerate the light, intimate dusk when it’s really noonday sun.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.