My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As sometimes happens with books that I end up liking very much, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos gave me problems at first. The writer intertwines three separate stories from three separate places and centuries: 17th century Netherlands, 1950s New York, and 2000 Sydney. Each chapter transported the reader to a different time and place and I just found that annoying at first. Just as I was beginning to get to know and care about one character, I would be whisked off to another continent to meet some stranger. But by book's end, I was into the writer's rhythm, and his method of telling the story seemed thoroughly natural and organic. I couldn't imagine it being told in any other fashion.
In 1635 Amsterdam, we meet Sara de Vos. Sara represents a fictionalized amalgam of several Dutch painters of that golden age. It was a time when guilds reigned over public life and endeavors in the region. To be able to participate, one needed to be a member of a guild, but in the early 1600s, it was unheard of for a woman to be admitted to a guild for master painters. Sara was the first to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke's in 1631.
Sara was married to another painter and they had a young daughter. They lived in extreme poverty but managed to eke out a living. Then the daughter fell ill with the plague and died four days later. Sara's husband had borrowed money which he could not pay back. Faced with debtor's prison a year later, he ran away, leaving Sara behind. She sold everything they had and went to work for the wealthy old bachelor who was her husband's creditor in order to pay off the debt. This turned out to be a happy placement for her, but she virtually gave up painting - except for a couple more works which we will encounter in the 21st century.
In 1950s New York, the inheritor of what is thought to be the only extant painting by de Vos, a winter landscape scene called "At the Edge of a Wood," is a patent attorney living a quiet life with his wife. The de Vos painting hangs over the bed in his master bedroom. At some point, apparently during a party that they give (although it is never entirely explained), the painting is stolen and a forgery is put in its place. The forgery is so good that the absence of the original is not noticed for months.
That forgery had been painted by an Australian graduate student in art history named Eleanor Shipley. She is doing her dissertation on 17th century women Dutch painters and is particularly fascinated by de Vos. Her decision to paint the forgery is one that will haunt her for more than forty years.
In Sydney in 2000, Ellie Shipley is a celebrated art historian and professor and she is curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters. She is shocked and appalled when both versions of "At the Edge of a Wood," the original and her forgery, are acquired as a part of the exhibit. All of her guilt over her long ago crime comes flooding back and she is faced with an ethical conundrum.
Dominic Smith weaves these three threads of his story together in a masterful way. In the process, he manages to educate us about art and the demands of the artistic life, the history of the Netherlands, as well as the life lessons that can be learned from decisions made in the past.
The main lesson seems to be that deceits of the past can continue to cast long shadows into the present. The past is never really dead; it isn't even past.
View all my reviews