|Jul/Aug 2016 Reviews & Interviews|
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos
Allen & Unwin. 2016. 374 pp.
ISBN 978 1 74343 995 1.
What would you do if your Ph.D dissertation in Art History was stalled, your skills and expertise in art restoration and conservation were being overlooked, and the art-dealer from whom you often gained lucrative restoration commissions asked you to copy a valuable old painting with which you immediately fell in love?
And what would you do if years later, when you are a respected figure in the art world, your copy—your fake, to be precise—and the original painting were both due to arrive at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia for an important exhibition of which you are curator?
These are the dilemmas faced by Ellie Shipley, an Australian woman whom we meet, first, boiling up smelly rabbit pelts for glue and grinding pigments in a mildewed, cramped Brooklyn apartment.
The painting that is the cause of the problem is the only known surviving work of a 17th century Dutch woman, Sara de Vos. Sara is Dominic Smith's creation, as is the life he invents for her, but she is based on a real woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age, Sarah von Baalbergen, who in 1631 was the first woman artist ever to be admitted to the Harlem Guild of St Luke, which controlled all aspects of an artist's professional life.
Sara's husband, Barent, is a professional painter and was a member of the Guild until he fell foul of their strict regulations about signing and dating his work and was fined and suspended. He hopes to get them out of debt by tapping into the current tulipomania and selling tulip paintings done by Sara, who has some artistic skill but has always been just his wife and assistant. Whenever Barent leaves the house, however, Sara abandons the tulip painting and climbs to the attic where she is secretly working on a landscape in which she hopes to capture her memories of their dead daughter, Kathrijn.
Sara's painting, "At the Edge of the Wood," is the strange, evocative landscape with which, centuries later, Ellie falls in love. It has been passed down in the family of American lawyer Marty de Groot for more than three centuries, and was hung above his marital bed in the richly furnished three-story Manhattan penthouse. When we first meet Marty, he is close to becoming a partner in a prestigious American law firm and he is preparing an Aid Society dinner for colleagues and friends (at $200 a plate) to raise money for orphans. Some time during the party his painting is, as he later puts it, "plucked from the wall" and replaced with a "meticulous fake." He revels in the suggestion of a masterminded plot but neglects to say that he didn't notice the substitution for months.
Marty hires a private detective to trace his painting and, eventually, he takes a devious and nasty form of revenge on Ellie. This, however, is not the end of the story.
In alternating chapters set in America, Holland, and Australia, Dominic Smith leads us into the very different lives of Marty, Sara, and Ellie. He is clearly very familiar with the places in which they live, and he is good at capturing the flavor of life and the character of the people in those countries. As we follow the story of the painting, we also get to know a lot about the art world, artists, and the skills needed to create and to successfully restore a painting. Smith wears the knowledge he has gained about the art world lightly, and he has acknowledged the significant help he received from experts, including professional art forger Ken Perenyi (author of Caveat Emptor), who clearly afforded him fascinating insight into this secretive work.
"Like forgers," Smith has said, "novelists trade in figments, illusions and the limits of veracity. We both specialise in deceiving the senses." Judging by The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Smith is a skilful forger of stories. The result, however, is genuinely original. He has the knack of bringing his characters to life. And he paints a fascinating, absorbing, and surprisingly suspenseful picture of the ways their lives become interwoven. If at times the fine details of canvas preparation, pigment grinding, filling and restoration get a little complicated, this is more than balanced by the lively action in an Auction house, Sara's involvement with an old Dutch woman whose family and city have been lost to plague, Ellie's life in a small Sydney community on an island close to the city, and the many other events which lead up to Marty's final appearance at the NSW Art Gallery on the night of the opening of Sara's exhibition.