The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith
The most venerable and old world thing your family can be in New York City is Dutch. They were the founders of the city and one third of the city flag is orange, in honor of the House of Orange.
So when we find ourselves in 1958 Manhattan, in a luxurious three-storied penthouse overlooking Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the home, it seems forever, of the De Groots, Rachel and Marty, we know Dominic Smith’s novel is tapping deep roots.
Is The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, entirely an historical novel? You could say so if you consider Sydney in the year 2000 to be historical. The other time frames are New York/New Jersey in 1958 and Holland in the 17th century, the Golden Age of Dutch Painting…and I had to write it that way. There are eight Vermeer paintings in New York, at the Met and the Frick…and many other paintings by Dutch and Flemish Masters, led by Rembrandt of course. In the early days, New York collectors loved buying them. There are only 34 Vermeer paintings in the world for sure, so eight is a lot.
But there are precious few Dutch master paintings attributed to women. The Amsterdam Guild of St. Luke, the old guild that represented painters, among other professions like physicians in 17th century Holland, kept a strict control over the craft. If you were an artist you couldn’t sell your paintings without their permission. And the right to sign your work with your name was a privilege that was not granted to everyone. Few women made it into the guild and the history of woman painters in old Holland in its glory days is murky…like I imagine Dutch weather can be in winter.
So it’s all the more remarkable that there’s a Dutch masterpiece by a woman, a haunting picture of a young girl at the edge of a frozen lake who is watching skaters, hanging with excessive nonchalance over the De Groot’s bed. It’s been in the family for centuries and perhaps they take its possession for granted. That is, until it’s stolen during a charity party and replaced by a very impressive but not perfect forgery.
Is there such a thing as an innocent forger? There couldn’t be based on what the word means. But Ellie is a forger who is looking the other way. She’s a poverty struck, socially awkward student from a hardscrabble background in Sidney, who has fallen into the craft of restoring old paintings in her hovel of an apartment in 1950’s Brooklyn.
She’s very gifted at her work, more then she gives herself credit for. So when she’s asked to copy an old Dutch painting from a series of detailed photographs by a seedy character named Gabriel, she suspects that she is really working on a forgery but tries not to dwell on that. She needs the money. It’s strange that this masterpiece is hanging over a bed. She can tell because in some of the photographs she can see the edge of the bed’s headboard.
Did you ever do something bad when you were younger and have the misfortune not to get caught? Ellie moves on and straightens out her life. She moves to London and attends the Courtland Institute; perhaps with the aid of the money she’s earned by crafting a forgery. She discovers she has a talent for scholarship. Ellie is transformed into an art historian, a distinguished scholar who specialty is women artists in the Dutch Golden Age.
That’s where Sydney in the year 2000 finds her. She’s curating a show at a Sydney gallery on her specialty, women artists of 17th century Holland and Flanders. She’s a widow in her 60’s or early 70’s now, still a social recluse, living alone on an island outside Sydney harbor. The young student with questionable ethics that she used to be; that must have been someone else! Marty is now in his 80’s.
If the knowledge that she had forged a painting ever got out…in her own specialty no less…her life would be wrecked, her career destroyed. There’s no realistic danger of that. The forged painting was from fifty years ago.
But then the painting she forged gets submitted to the gallery for her exhibit…twice. It’s submitted once from the original owner, Marty de Groot in New York, and once from a small museum in Leiden. One of the pictures must be her forgery. Ellie can’t get around it. As curator of the show, she’ll have to denounce one of the paintings as fake, knowing that it’s her fake.
A dance of fakery between Ellie and Marty haunts the novel. They check and counter-check each other throughout the story, which is compared to a garden maze with many false turnings. It’s class and old money versus the underclass and no money. It’s New York hauteur versus Aussie hardscrabble. That oppressed me a little, as if you were your class and risked vanishing as an individual under it.
There’s a defining encounter between Ellie and Marty towards the end of the book in a 1950’s flashback. Marty, under a false name, has maneuvered Ellie, who doesn’t realize who he truly is, to an overnight weekend of antiquing in the country. As they lay their suitcases on their respective twin beds at a quirky B&B, Ellie is grateful that her companion doesn’t mention that her suitcase is way too big for an overnight. She doesn’t have the right luggage. This younger Ellie doesn’t know how to dress. She’s hardly dated. Marty is fifteen years older, has been everywhere and has taken the best things in life for granted since the day he was born. It breeds a self-assurance that only birth into old money can buy.
When Marty opens his perfect overnight case, Ellie is too embarrassed to open her luggage. Marty’s case is a wonder of tasseled compartments. A fine Bordeaux is cradled in the yellow cashmere sweater that has his name embroidered into it. His fine trousers are bespoke. It’s so unfair to Ellie, so traumatizing. She’s totally outclassed. It’s not mentioned but they both know it.
The third time frame rounds out The Last Painting of Sara De Vos into a satisfying literary read. We are in 17th century Holland, where Sara is struggling to hold her family together. The craze of the tulip bulb market has just collapsed and bulbs once worth a fortune are now almost worthless. No one wants to buy Sara’s still life pictures of flowers, especially the ones with tulips. Not that she’s allowed to sign her name to them anyway. She’s even been selling them illegally under the nose of the Guild. The family debt is ruinous. Her child is feverish. Her husband walks.
If there could be a writer whose sentences form pictures, that would be Dominic Smith. What a gifted craftsperson! And then there are the descriptions of Sara’s paintings, which the story comes back to again and again from different angles. Anyone who reads the book will think that they have seen Sara’s paintings. The technical details of forging a painting or of physically creating one in the first place, according to 17th century practice, are formidable and they impressed me naturally enough…since I know nothing about the subject. I mostly skimmed over them.
The chapters alternate the different eras, 50’s New York, Sydney in 2000, Holland in the 17th century; until the last chapter, where Australia and Holland phase in and out with final insights like fleeting poetic visions. I found the Australian sections the least convincing, I’m not sure why. Maybe compared to 1950’s New York (which I know) and 17th century Holland, 21st century Sydney seems under-written.
But I don’t know the city. The writer throws out a lot of distinctive place names and urban geography but it didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t follow that part. A local or an informed visitor would probably find the references meaningful. There’s a sense that the writer is housecleaning in the last Australian chapter. And in a beautiful effect, the story doesn’t end so much as it fades into dusk.
Dominic Smith’s formidable craftsmanship exacts a price perhaps. This isn’t a fast paced novel and not meant to be. Smith is too reflective a writer for a fast read. You must accommodate yourself to the tempo of the writing if you wish to enjoy the book.
And the key to the book is: The Last Painting of Sara De Vos.