Publication date: April 5th 2016
It’s hard to believe that something as benign as an art exhibit entitled Women of the Dutch Golden Age could be the nexus for such widespread themes as art history, abandonment, love, grief, forgery, and intrigue, but in Dominic Smith’s new novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos it is. Eleanor Shipley is an esteemed professor at Sydney University and a well-known scholar of seventeenth century female Dutch painters. She is also the curator of the exhibit, which will be displaying the only known painting by Sara de Vos, the first female member of the Guild of St. Luke—the only way an artist could paint for a living in Holland in the 1600s. Her painting, At the Edge of a Wood, has been owned by Martin de Groot’s family for three hundred years and hung in his bedroom until it was stolen and replaced with a forgery in the 1958. Within a year it was returned and now, over 40 years later both versions have shown up for the exhibit.
With so much to work with it was possible that The Last Painting of Sara de Vos would end up as muddy as a child’s finger painting and yet, with Smith’s steady hand, the novel flows through centuries and lives with a somber elegance. There is the damp privation of Sara’s life in Amsterdam to the padded wealth of Martin’s Manhattan penthouse to Eleanor’s grimy Brooklyn apartment. All culminating in the year 2000 with the composed Ellie, at the pinnacle of her career, being confronted by the forged de Vos painting. A forgery she knows all too well.
The technicalities of painting may seem dry to some, but for me it is a fascinating subject, largely because it is so much more than applying paint to canvas. How the process worked before there were synthetics and pre-made materials makes for reading that pulses with life in the same way a work of art does. There is nothing dry about The Last Painting—the historical details of art in 17th century Amsterdam are felt in Sara’s struggle against the restrictions for women painters, namely no landscapes because a woman alone outside is improper. We feel them again in Ellie as an art history graduate student in 1957, whose desire to restore the art of the 1600s is such that she only uses the exact same materials for her repairs (boiled rabbit pelt, anyone?). Is it surprising then that when she has the chance to ‘copy’ an entire painting by an obscure female Dutch artist that youthful passion leaves no room for ethical concerns?
It is not just the art that makes The Last Painting of Sara de Vos such satisfying reading. There are also the realities of life at a time when the plague destroyed entire cities, including taking the life of Sara’s only child, and when a woman could be bound by her husband’s debts if he decided to run away rather than pay them. There is the love of the work pressed against the need to survive. The Last Painting allows the reader to see not only the serenity of the art but the struggle and pain that often lay beneath the paint and made it memorable.