The Last Painting of Sara de Vos Dominic Smith (2016)
As I read this novel, I assumed that the title painting, the last painting of Sara de Vos, was At the Edge of a Wood. The creation of this fictional work of art is placed in 1636, as de Vos is grieving the death of her only child, a daughter, from the plague. The painting shows a dark-haired girl in the foreground, barefoot in the snow, watching a group of skaters on the frozen river beyond. It’s dusk in winter in the Netherlands, so the quality of light is otherworldly.
According to novelist Dominic Smith’s complex story, At the Edge of a Wood has been owned by the de Groot family for more than three hundred years, and it’s considered by some to have caused bad luck for the owners. Marty de Groot, the owner we meet in Manhattan in 1957, certainly hasn’t suffered financially, but Marty’s law career is stalled, and he and his wife are unable to have children.
Also in 1957 but in Brooklyn, the novelist introduces us to Ellie Shipley, an Australian graduate student in art history at Columbia University. She’s trying to finish her PhD dissertation about female painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and she does art restoration work to support herself. Along comes a commission, not to restore but to copy a painting by (wait for it) a female painter of the Dutch Golden Age: At the Edge of a Wood. Ellie wades in, not so much for the money as for the technical and artistic challenge of reproducing a stunning painting. This is, of course, forgery.
Forty-odd years later, in 2000, Ellie is an esteemed art historian and curator in Sydney, Australia. As she’s gathering paintings on loan from around the world for an exhibit, it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and the copy she painted will be arriving in Sydney. The forgery will be revealed, and since Ellie is the only person who could have painted the copy, she sees her comfortable life crumbling before her.
The book moves back and forth effortlessly among three settings: The Netherlands 1636-1649 (dark, burgher-ruled); New York, 1957-1958 (shiny, jazz-filled); and Sydney, 2000 (sunny, cosmopolitan). The characters of Sara de Vos, Marty de Groot, and Ellie Shipley—all drawn convincingly—move through these settings and through their interconnected lives.
Novelist Smith does an excellent job of rendering visual art in words, and not only in the passages where he describes paintings. References to the light in a scene come in frequently. For example, here is Ellie on the subway in New York City: “She always has the sensation of being swallowed by the roaring dark of the first tunnel, her ears popping and the sudden appearance of her reflection on the blackened windowpane like some hangdog daguerreotype from another century.“ (208) And here is Marty, in his office at night after committing a terrible deed: “He’s never been up here at night and there’s a sensation of being fortified behind glass, of something solid between him and the mercantile canyons of the city. The office buildings are phosphorescent through the darkness, effulgent with a smoky light that reminds him of dry ice.” (249).
By the end of the novel, you’ll know what the last painting of Sara de Vos actually was. I’ll leave you with this summation of the plot: “You carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like graveside vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again.” (262)