Book Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The novel traces a painting's four-century history through a gallery of characters drawn with fondness and poignancy

<i>The Last Painting of Sara de Vos</i>

There is a great vulnerability in an oil painting. There is the tenderness of the crafting. What of her- or himself does the painter choose to reveal? What do they blend into pigments? What do they lay closest to the canvas and farthest from prying eyes? Then there is the slavish devotion of the restorer/forger. How does this painter supersede his or her own artistic bent, how do they grind themselves into the minutiae of what pigment to use and how thick to layer the paint right there, how, when success will mean they themselves have disappeared? And then there's us, the audience and owners, who stand in museums, in our homes, making space for someone else's view of the world, projecting our dreams and fears on a piece of canvas that has survived by the sheer luck of history.

Given its title, it cannot be a surprise that Dominic Smith's novel follows an oil painting's path through time. De Vos, assistant to her painter husband in Amsterdam during Holland's Golden Age in the early 1600s, is largely relegated to still lifes, but in the wake of her young daughter's death, crafts the piece around which the novel revolves. By 1957, the painting – At the Edge of a Wood – has been passed through the de Groot family to Marty, a wealthy lawyer living in New York. No owner of the painting has lived past the age of 60, so it is a mixed blessing when it is stolen and replaced by an excellent forgery. Then, in Sydney in 2000, Ellie Shipley, now an established art historian and curator, must confront the forgery she was commissioned to paint when she was a starving graduate student in New York. The chapters flit across the centuries, from one character's ache to another's with an ease that belies Smith's careful construction. There is plenty of mystery to spur you on, but the greatest pleasures are the people and the fondness and poignancy with which they are painted for you.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

by Dominic Smith
Sarah Crichton Books, 290 pp., $26

Dominic Smith will speak about The Last Painting of Sara de Vos in the session "History Repeated," with John Pipkin (The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter) and moderator Erik Ankerberg, on Sat., Nov. 5, 11:45am, in Capitol Extension Room E2.014.

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