The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Neil Christie
Reviewed by Neil Christie
Summary: Superlative interplay of deceit, obsession and conscience surrounding an exquisite work of art. Dominic Smith builds up layers of time, place and character, just as if we were witnessing the creation of a Dutch Golden Age masterpiece
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2017
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1925266801

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If you find the techniques used by Rembrandt and Vermeer fascinating, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos provides a masterclass in how to work up a canvas in stages. Framing the novel as the story of a seventeenth century Dutch painting, Dominic Smith vividly sketches out the main contours of his characters and the three time periods they inhabit before we are even one fifth of the way through. Sara is one of the few women artists of the period and her painting is of children skating on a frozen canal, her now dead daughter its central figure. The painting has been in Marty de Groot's family since before Isaac Newton was born and he is the patent lawyer from whom it is stolen in 1950s Manhattan. Ellie Shipley forged a copy of the painting in her postgraduate student years and in 2000 finds herself at the centre of a gathering storm which threatens to destroy her reputation as one of Sydney's foremost fine art academics. Satisfying though those first descriptions are, we then understand these are merely the author's equivalent of the delicate chalk lines used by painters of the Dutch Golden Age to mark out the composition which will follow.

Like an old master, Smith revisits the three parts of the canvas again and again, each set of brush strokes adding to the carefully blended effect, just as Ellie does in her work as a jobbing conservator before turning those skills to illegitimate use. As the narratives intertwine in a series of intriguing twists, so the characters' many facets are revealed. Although separated by more than three hundred years, both Sara and Ellie fight against the conventions of the period they live within, artfully creating spaces within which to thrive and excel. And as Marty's story develops, Smith skilfully weaves his answer to the question which many of us must find perplexing; How can inherited wealth make you unhappy?

I found the authenticity of Smith's characters lent depth and power to his exploration of a painting's meaning and value to the individual. We watch as the raw grief of Sara de Vos finds expression in the colours of sky and snow on her canvas. The painter's careful depiction of how light is reflected in the subject's eyes is also the mother's determination never to forget her dead daughter's face, in a pre-photographic age which meant this was entirely possible.

Marty's wife Rachel has suffered two miscarriages, losses too painful for them as a couple to discuss. Every time he looks at the painting, Marty tries to suppress emotions which the picture of children at play produces. But we sense that without the scene to gaze on, there is no place else where he can confront the quiet sadness that permeates the house and their marriage. What we hang on our walls, Smith seems to be saying, becomes part of our identity.

I became engrossed in the technical descriptions of how paintings were created in the seventeenth century; the daily grinding of paint, the exposure to lead and other poisonous substances. Reading how Ellie went about methodically creating a forged replica with the same relentless discipline, I began to understand the deep appreciation of the original which such a feat requires. Drawing us deeper into the peculiar obsessions which bind painter and forger together, Smith turns values such as truth and fidelity on their head. Thus it feels natural that Ellie should experience a kind of technical remorse at having failed to appreciate how de Vos created her yellow pigment. In a neat ironic twist, the analyst who later determines whether the work is fake or real has no interest in art itself.

Smith gives us absorbing descriptions of simple, everyday activities, such as walking down a street in Manhattan in 1958. His images often suggest paintings themselves, such as the lighted apartments in the night sky above Central Park, resembling ocean liners. The seventeenth century indoor scenes brought to mind doorways leading into Vermeer interiors, bathed in a calm, clear light.

Fulfillment, as they say, comes from living in the moment and Smith wraps us in the immediacy of moments and their texture over and over throughout this novel. While giving a beautiful and vivid account of how paintings are made, he creates for readers a space, as in a gallery, where we can contemplate the emotional intensity surrounding the creation of art.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of this novel to the Bookbag.

Readers interested in an evocation of Amsterdam in its Golden Age could try I Am Rembrandt's Daughter by Lynn Cullen. For links between paintings, objects d'art and the commerce of the period, you might wish to explore Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook.

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Buy The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith at


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