The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel, by Dominic Smith, (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 304 pages, release date 5 April, 2016
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a wonderful example of a novel inspired by art. In this case, the artist is a fictional construct, but a very believable one—the first female member of a guild of master painters, admitted to the guild in 1631. Her husband is a master painter as well. While he paints landscapes, she paints flowers and dreams of new kinds of landscape paintings picturing the world seen from different, unexpected angles. Smith’s 17th Century Holland is bleak and believable. Sara de Vos is saddled with her husband’s debts after he deserts her and finds herself an uneasy resident artist in the home of a wealthy eccentric. It’s a life that requires constant perseverance in the face of one tragedy after another.
In more recent times, only one of Sara de Vos’s paintings survives: a bleak landscape, viewed from the perspective of a young girl who stands barefoot in the snow. Ellie Shiply, once an artist, now adjusting to life as a graduate student Art History, agrees to paint a forgery of this work. She’s told that what she is doing isn’t intended for criminal purposes, but it’s not long before her forgery hangs on the wall of the painting’s owner in place of the original. When a detective hired by original owner finds Shiply, her life is changed forever—both because of her fear that the forgery will put an end to her academic career and because of the relationship she finds herself building with the owner.
The two narratives twine years later when Shiply curates an exhibition of female Dutch painters and both the original and forgery are offered on loan from owners who believe them to be genuine.
Smith’s characters are flawed in exactly the right ways, with faults balanced by kindnesses or vulnerabilities of different sorts, so that readers can imagine slipping into their skins and living their lives both past and present. Waiting for a resolution of the problem of the two paintings—and for the impact it will have on Shiply’s life—makes the novel compelling reading. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos stands up well, and distinctively, among other achievements in this genre, like Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls or Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson. Readers with a love of art, of history, and of the mysterious are in for a treat.
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