BookPage Fiction Top Pick, April 2016
Australian author Dominic Smith has brought historic events and vibrant places to life in books like The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre and Bright and Distant Shores. His fourth novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, centers on a single 17th-century painting that changes the course of three lives over four centuries and across several continents.
The novel has three narrative threads. In 1631, Sara de Vos became the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the Dutch Guild of St. Luke. By 1957, her only known remaining work, “At the Edge of a Wood,” hangs in the bedroom of Marty de Groot, a wealthy patent lawyer in Manhattan. In the shabbier reaches of Brooklyn, Ellie Shipley, an art history graduate student with a background in art restoration, is approached about creating a forgery. Shortly after, the de Vos is stolen, and the clues lead to Ellie’s grimy studio.
Decades later, Ellie is a prominent curator in Sydney, mounting an exhibition on women painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Both paintings—the original and the forgery—are en route to her museum, and Ellie is forced to confront what she did. Behind the contemporary mystery of the forged work are questions about de Vos herself and what led her to break with convention, despite the strict Guild rules governing women painters and subject matter. Though the way these elements intersect may be guessed by astute readers early on, the pleasure here is watching Smith control all three stories—the pertinent questions are answered in ways that not only convince, but also satisfy.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos does what the best books can do: sweep the reader into unfamiliar worlds filled with intriguing characters. The immense challenges faced by women in the arts, both past and present, are also skillfully rendered, and the gritty details—from behind-the-scenes museum work to the formulas of an art forger—are managed with finesse. Smith’s characters are so real and the novel plotted so thoughtfully that one finishes with a sigh of contentment. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a true pleasure to read.