The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
One of the clichés of the literary thriller or page-turner is the use of multiple narratives that relate to each other only in oblique ways. The milieu of one of these narratives is usually exotic, the life of a female painter in the Dutch Golden Age say, or the seamy world of art forgers, while the milieu of another is rarefied, the offices of Manhattan lawyers perhaps, or the galleries of high-end Sydney art curators. Another cliché of this sort of novel is having the story based loosely on some historical event or person, the first woman admitted to the Dutch master painters’ Guild of St Luke, for example, and yet another is having the emotional arc of the characters inhabiting these narratives mirror each other so that the thematic concerns dovetail neatly by the end of the book.
Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos hits all of these notes. It is saved from being an entirely run-of-the-mill literary thriller by Smith’s talent for conjuring a sense of place and for crafting nuanced, believable characters.
The novel opens with Marty de Groot, a Manhattan lawyer who lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park filled with inherited Dutch masterworks. Only by the smallest detail does he discover that one of his most prized possessions, the only known work by Sara de Vos, has been swapped for a forgery. The novel quickly moves from here to Amsterdam in the 1630s, where we learn how Sara came to paint the original, and then back to 1950s New York, this time Brooklyn, where Ellie Shipley, a lonely art student and restorer from Sydney, is tempted into painting the forgery.
There is fun to be had following these threads and in guessing how they may converge, but the novel’s greatest pleasures lie in its subtle portrait of two women in very different circumstances struggling against patriarchal constraints. Ellie’s story is a much happier one than Sara’s. Building a career in the last decades of the 20th century, Ellie is able to become a high-profile art curator and lecturer, despite her shady past as a forger, while Sara is barely allowed to paint anything but still lifes. Ellie, however, must still fight to be defined on her own terms. This is the most interesting concern of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and one that lends it more gravitas than its more hackneyed preoccupation with the consolations of art. SH
Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos ". Subscribe here.