The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, Australia, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, Australia, 2016

Beautifully written, this book about a painting and a forgery is definitely worth reading. It moves seamlessly between three time periods: the seventeenth century, the late 1950s, and the present time, creating and retaining the suspense that holds the story together. While sketching the life of the fictional Dutch artist Sara de Vos and describing how she came to paint At the Edge of a Wood, Smith also introduces us to Ellie, an artist and art historian from Australia who, in the 1950s, is living in fairly primitive circumstances in New York. That she agrees to do a copy of At the Edge of the Wood for a less-than-honest art dealer is the linchpin of the story. The third person of note is Marty de Groot, who owns the original painting – it has been in the de Groot family for about three centuries – and lives in New York.

In the present (2000), the story moves to Sydney, Ellie’s home town, where things become both undone and resolved. Ellie now a prominent and successful person in the art world is involved with an exhibition of paintings by Dutch female artists from the seventeeth century, and she realizes, to her horror, that both the original and the fake painting are on their way to the gallery. Also on his way to the exhibition is Marty de Groot. Would their lives have gone in different directions had it not been for the painting and the forgery?

Threaded through the story in the present is also the story from the past – Sara’s story. Sara, representing a number of women artists of the time (Sarah van Baalbergen and Judith Leyster among others), fights an almost impossible battle against a background of poverty and tragedy to have her work recognized on the same platform as her male colleagues. What seems impossible eventually becomes possible and she is admitted to the Guild as the only female artist.

Sara and Ellie, though several centuries apart, are connected by the fact that they are both women, artists, and that they are both trying to survive in male-dominated societies. There are many levels to this book, and this is only one of them.

The research that has gone into this book is admirable, and for anyone wanting information as to how to go about reproducing a seventeenth-century Dutch painting this is certainly the book to read. As well, the observation and attention to small details, especially in regards to place – Holland, New York and Sydney – moves the book into a category of its own. The three main characters are all well described and they come across as authentic and realistic.

The only negative comment I would make about this book is the fact that although Smith is Australian, and his main character is Australian, and the book was published and printed in Australia, the spelling and the idiom used throughout the book is American. Although I initially found this disappointing, I later discovered that Smith has lived in America for many years, and perhaps this explains the language. Apart from this small discrepancy, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is an almost perfect reading experience.

The image of Dominic Smith is from SMH

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