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.

More Texas Book Festival
Texas Book Festival
Texas Book Festival
Texas Book Festival announces its full lineup of authors for 2017

Sept. 15, 2017

Fine Print
Fine Print
Texas Book Festival brings some of the best and brightest literary minds to the Capitol

Monica Riese, Oct. 25, 2013

More Arts Reviews
Amanda Eyre Ward's Maternal Turn
Amanda Eyre Ward's Maternal Turn
In The Nearness of You, the Austin novelist writes about her most important topic yet: motherhood

Jessi Cape, Feb. 17, 2017

Stephen Harrigan's <i>A Friend of Mr. Lincoln</i>
Stephen Harrigan's A Friend of Mr. Lincoln
This historical novel gives us an ambitious, impetuous president-to-be we grow close to

Robert Faires, Dec. 30, 2016

More by Rosalind Faires
Into <i>The Adventure Zone</i> With Griffin McElroy
Into The Adventure Zone With Griffin McElroy
Griffin McElroy tells how his brother, his brother, and he turned a game of Dungeons & Dragons into podcast magic

Oct. 13, 2017

Rolling the Dice
Rolling the Dice
Behind the scenes of The Adventure Zone with Griffin McElroy

Oct. 12, 2017


Texas Book Festival, Texas Book Festival 2016, Dominic Smith

AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)