The Last Painting of Sara de Vos Summary and Reviews

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

A Novel

by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith X
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
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Book Summary

A rare seventeenth-century painting links three lives, on three continents, over three centuries in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, an exhilarating new novel from Dominic Smith.

Amsterdam, 1631: Sara de Vos becomes the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the city's Guild of St. Luke. Though women do not paint landscapes (they are generally restricted to indoor subjects), a wintry outdoor scene haunts Sara: She cannot shake the image of a young girl from a nearby village, standing alone beside a silver birch at dusk, staring out at a group of skaters on the frozen river below. Defying the expectations of her time, she decides to paint it.

New York City, 1957: The only known surviving work of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, hangs in the bedroom of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer, Marty de Groot, a descendant of the original owner. It is a beautiful but comfortless landscape. The lawyer's marriage is prominent but comfortless, too. When a struggling art history grad student, Ellie Shipley, agrees to forge the painting for a dubious art dealer, she finds herself entangled with its owner in ways no one could predict.

Sydney, 2000: Now a celebrated art historian and curator, Ellie Shipley is mounting an exhibition in her field of specialization: female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. When it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and her forgery are en route to her museum, the life she has carefully constructed threatens to unravel entirely and irrevocably.

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Media Reviews

"Smith's paintings, like his settings, come alive through detail: the Gowanus Expressway, ruins of an old Dutch village, two women from different times and places both able to capture on canvas simultaneous beauty and sadness." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Rich in historical detail, the novel explores the immense challenges faced by women in the arts (past and present), provides a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of the art world across the centuries, and illustrates the transformative power and influence of great art. An outstanding achievement, filled with flawed and fascinating character" - Booklist

"Starred Review. Just as a painter may utilize thousands of fine brushstrokes, Smith slowly creates a masterly, multilayered story that will dazzle readers of fine historical fiction." - Library Journal

"Starred Review. This is a beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life" - Kirkus Reviews

"The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tremendous story of art, deception, love, ambition and the place of women in the world, and in history. From the opening pages you know you are in the hands of a writer at the top of his game." - The Australian

"A page-turning book with much to say about the pain and exhilaration of art and life." - Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord

"From afar, this novel is so beautiful, the prose so clear and vivid, that it seems effortless; on closer examination, one sees the rich thematic palette Dominic Smith has used. This is a novel of love and longing, of authenticity and ethical shadows, and, most compelling, of art as alchemy, the way that it can turn grief to profound beauty." - Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies and the New York Times-bestselling Arcadia

"As this story of art, beauty, deception, and the harshest kinds of loss ranged over continents and centuries, I was completely transfixed by the sense of unfolding revelation. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is, quite simply, one of the best novels I have ever read, and as close to perfect as any book I'm likely to encounter in my reading life. One of those rare books I'll return to again and again in the coming years." - Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist

"[A] novel of surprising beauty and piercing suspense. I couldn't stop turning the pages even while the last thing I wanted was to reach the end." - Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

This information about The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Diane S.

The Last Painting of Sara
1600s, Holland, Sara is the first woman admitted to the artist's guild. Her husband was a painter of landscapes, but at that time woman were expected to paint only still life's. After a terrible tragedy changes the fabric of their family, Sara paints a landscape. This painting will affect the fortunes of others down the centuries.

Late 1950's Ellie Shipley is a young woman working on her thesis of Dutch woman painters, she is also working as a cleaner and restorer. She is asked to do something that will come back to haunt her in the near future and culminate in a near disaster decades later.

Martin de Groot, inherited wealth also the owner of several Dutch paintings done by woman and passed down in his family from generation to generation. A discovery he makes will have a profound effect on himself and Ellie.

Like a finished painting all these layers will come together in a final, touching and brilliant uncovering.

Wonderful story, fantastic prose, descriptive, impassioned, even the alternating storylines are used to draw the reader in, heading for a amazing dénouement. Learned so much about art, forgeries, the art world on general and the life of women painters in early times. The character of Sara is actually a composite of all early women Dutch painters, as the author so nicely explains. Shows how one decision can effect our lives in unexpected ways. For me this book was absolutely brilliant.

Davida Chazan

Landscapes of Deception
In reality, none of Sarah van Baalbergen's works survived, but Dominic Smith decided to turn the few known facts about her into fiction by renaming her as Sara de Vos and resurrecting her work. Smith grabs your attention from the very first moments, with the scenes of Sara with her husband and daughter on an outing to see a beached whale, which her husband decides to paint. When Sara suggests drawing the scene from an elevated viewpoint (which her husband rejects), we immediately realize that this is no ordinary woman. She has a rare talent that the world refuses to allow her to express because of her gender. Then Smith turns to 1950s Ellie; she too has unique gifts, but once again, her peers ignore her because she is a woman. This lovely parallel flows underneath almost the whole novel, tinting the action with splashes of feminism along the way - in various shades of prematurity. (Sorry for all the art metaphors, but I couldn't resist!)

One thing I adored about this novel was how very different Smith made the 17th century parts feel from the more contemporary sections. The whole atmosphere surrounding Sara de Vos and her life felt almost like it was written by another author altogether. Obviously, Smith's in-depth research imbued him with a need to shade these passages with a very different color pallet, one with more muted and subdued tones (for wont of better metaphors). This could have felt disjointed, but Smith also let this slip into the passages when Ellie is working on copying Sara's painting. In this way, Smith gracefully smoothed the edges between the 17th century and the mid-20th century passages - bravo to Smith for that! This novel had me fascinated from the very first pages and held my attention throughout. Although there were a few small things that didn't work for me, the vast majority did, and because of this, I'll warmly recommend this novel and give it a solid four out of five stars.

Cloggie Downunder

a very readable tale
‘The cold air burns her cheeks as she skates along, pushing into long glides, her hands behind her back, the sound of her skate blades like the sharpening of a knife on whetstone. She wants to skate for miles, to fall until midnight into thi bracing pleasure. The bare trees glitter with ice along the riverbank, a complement to the winking stars. The night feels unpeeled, as if she’s burrowed into its flesh. Here is the bone and armature, the trees holding up the sky like the ribs of a ship, the ice hardening the river into a mirror too dull to see the sky’s full reflection… there are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace”

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is the fourth novel by prize-winning Australian-born author, Dominic Smith. “At the Edge of a Wood”: a haunting and evocative landscape from the Dutch Golden Age, painted by the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Sara de Vos, and believed to be her last known work.

It had been in Marty de Groot’s family for over three hundred years when it was stolen from his Manhattan bedroom. It was replaced with a forgery that was so skilfully executed, it was six months before he even noticed. Police and insurance agents made no headway, but finally a privately-engaged investigator tracked down the artist.

Marty intends to confront the forger, a young Australian woman named Eleanor Shipley, who consults in art restoration and conservation, while completing her dissertation on Dutch women painters of the Golden Age for her art history Ph.D. at Columbia. But his meeting with Ellie does not go quite as he had intended.

Smith uses three separate timelines to follow the progress and fates the painting, and those people in whose lives it plays a significant role: the mid-17th Century introduces Sara de Vos and details the circumstances under which her artwork was created; the late-1950s describes the production of the forgery and the aftermath of its discovery; the year 2000 tells of the effects of the threatened exposure of the fake on a hard-won reputation.

Smith’s plot is original and his inclusion of a wealth of information on 17th Century Dutch art, on the restoration and preservation of artworks and on the making of forgeries gives it a genuine feel. His characters are multi-faceted and interesting, some genuine, some misrepresenting who they are and what they know. How lives are affected by secrets kept, by regret and by guilt over past actions is a major element of this story.

Smith treats the reader to some marvellous descriptive prose: “…it strikes her that she has never painted exactly what she sees. Surely, this is the way of all art. The painter sees the world as if through the watery lens of a pond. Certain things ripple and distort while others are magnified and strangely clear” and “You live among the ruins of the past, carry them in your pockets, wishing you’d been decent and loving and talented and brave. Instead you were vain and selfish, capable of love but always giving less than everything you had” are examples.

Also: “The truer statement was that she’d used the de Vos canvas as a testing ground for her own thwarted talents, that she was reckless and lonely and angry with the world, that she craved a kind of communion, to find a layer beneath the glazes and scumbles and lead white where Sara herself still trudged through the fog of antique varnish, wracked by grief but somehow dispensing painterly wisdom.”

Smith easily conveys the 17th Century, including many interesting details about everyday life and the world of the Golden Age artist in the Netherlands; his portrayal Sydney during the Millennium is equally effective; his rendering of the late-1950s is less convincing. His blend of fiction with historical fact makes for a very readable tale.

4.5 stars

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Author Information

Dominic Smith Author Biography

Photo: Stacy Sodolak

Dominic Smith is the author of six novels, including The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, and a best book of the year at Amazon, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Kirkus Reviews. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and The Australian, among other publications. He grew up in Sydney, Australia, and now lives in Seattle, Washington.

Author Interview
Link to Dominic Smith's Website

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