Recommended Reading: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith

IMG_6466I loved Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos* so much that I tamed my instinct to race through it, and instead spent just under a week immersed in this gorgeous novel.

The narrative plays out in three times. In seventeenth-century Holland, Sara de Vos is an anomaly, a woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke–the painter’s guild, though she’s allowed to paint only still lifes, rather than the landscapes she’s drawn to. After a family tragedy, however, she begins work on a painting later called At the Edge of a Wood, an almost eerie winter landscape scene.

More than two centuries later, in 1950s Manhattan, that painting hangs over the headboard of Rachel and Marty de Groot (a descendant of the painting’s original owner). Marty is a lawyer who seems to be gently tilting toward infidelity when he comes home one night to realize that the painting over his bed isn’t the one he grew up with; it’s a skilled forgery.

Halfway around the world and forty years later, Australian curator and art historian Ellie Shipley is putting the finishing touches on an exhibit of paintings in her specialization—Dutch women painters of the Golden Age—and wondering how it is that she’s close to so few people. Then she receives a phone call: the painting At the Edge of a Wood is on its way to the museum. The trouble is, it’s not the only one. One painting is a forgery, and she should know: she was the forger.

Mr. Smith weaves these three disparate lives together into a richly detailed tapestry of human connection, an exploration of art, love, and the opportunities women make for themselves.  The novel is absolutely gripping, with revelations more startling than you might think possible given that the action revolves around one obscure painting. And the writing is exquisite; even if you, like me, haven’t touched paint since fingers were the application method of choice, you’ll be transported into the world of stretched canvases, mixed pigments, the struggle to find just the right texture for the yellow paint. Even the ordinary is transformed in this book; a freezer becomes “a diorama of snowmelt and frosted meat hilltops”; a roof is “run through with dormer windows that jut out like tiny caves in a cliffside.” One of my favorite descriptions comes when Marty dismisses his wife’s fondness for Impressionists: when he “looks at certain Cézannes he sees blueish fuzz—the powdery bloom on the skin of a Concord grape.”

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a beautiful example of painting with words–and highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

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