The Last Painting of Sara De Vos

Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos
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The Last Painting of Sara De Vos

Dominic Smith

This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can’t shake them, even long after the reading’s done. In this extraordinary novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Australian writer Dominic Smith brilliantly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the Golden Age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated Australian art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted to the Guild of St. Luke in Holland as a master painter, the first woman to be so honoured. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain-a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the Manhattan bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibition of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive.

As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

Review

Among my favourite reads are works that source inspiration for subject material from the art world. Works such as Alex Miller’s Prochownik’s Dream or Paul Morgan’s Turner’s Paintbox draw on the rich cultural heritage of artistic life and bring depth of experience, knowledge and an emotional intuition to their work. Fellow Australian author Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarade Vos is cut from the same canvas and is an eloquent, well-crafted work that focuses on Dutch painting of the Golden Age. With creative embellishment, Smith illuminates the lesser-known story of female master painters of 17th-century Holland and explores other more contemporary topics such as art conservation and the science behind art forgery.

As an interesting structural format, the story is split across three time frames, each linked by a shared connection to the fictional artist Sara de Vos. The story opens in 1630 in Holland and we meet de Vos as she is dealing with her husband’s abandonment of her and struggling to gain recognition by the Artists’ Guild, an imperative if she is to produce and sell artwork to support herself independently. Cast forward 300 years to 1950 and Michael de Groot, a wealthy Manhattan lawyer, is the custodian of de Vos’s last surviving painting. We also meet Ellie Shipley, an Australian in her final year of an art history PhD at Columbia University. Financial issues together with professional curiosity see Shipley make the fated decision to copy the de Vos painting for a private commission. But when an art heist follows and the forgery is swapped for the original, Shipley’s anonymity may not protect her from criminal or professional repercussions. Many decades later in Sydney, as Shipley curates an exhibition of Dutch female artists, the rogue forgery threatens to show up. What follows is masterfully unexpected.


Natalie Platten works as a bookseller at Readings Malvern.

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