Dominic Smith’s latest novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, is an intriguing concept, beautifully told. As we go from contemporary Sydney to 1950s New York to Amsterdam in the 1600s, Smith intelligently weaves a mystery narrative, telling the story of two artists, one of whom is a forger.
Ellie Shipley is an Australian grad art student in New York, struggling to stay afloat. Sara de Vos is the first female to be admitted as a master painter of the Guild of St Luke, during the Dutch Golden Age. In both desperation and out of pure admiration for the work, Ellie agrees to paint a forgery of Sara’s last known canvas – “The Girl at the Edge of the Forest” – which was created in the darkest depths of mourning: a haunting winter scene, evoking beauty and sadness. The painting hangs above the bed of a wealthy American attorney, a descendant of the first and only buyer of de Vos’ last work.
So it is about how one piece of art has changed lives across the centuries. It is also about how real a fake can be; about grief and circumstance. And the book is, in itself a work of art. It’s beautiful to read, intelligently sequenced and sensitively written. Smith has a real sense for imagery himself, and writing about art – which can be so awkward – is expertly managed, evoking texture and feeling and scent, as well as colour and light and subject.
“He angles the picture to study it in the light of the window, but in the harshness of sunlight the surface recedes and flashes iridescent…Up until this moment…he has always thought of painters in the same light as stonemasons or engravers, craftsmen who ply a trade. This painting is entirely different, a scene so ethereal that it flinches in the full light of day.”
The typical literary thriller trope of multiple intersecting storylines in different times and places does not feel exhausted here. Smith is skilled in evoking a scene, each period feels sensorily inhabited and fleshed out. And this keen eye is also turned to how he draws his characters: they are nuanced and complex, creating subtle portraits of the two key women.
“These quarters must have once belonged to a priest and his family, a rectory built into the brick hind of the church. A rent of blue sky dominates the ceiling and the walls are mossed a delicate green. An overhang of slate surrounds the tarred hearth, a pair of cauldrons smoking above a low set fire. A few wooden bowls, a gruel cup, a pelt of rabbit furs laid out as a rug, a low milking stool with three legs. The only suggestion of civil society is a single cushion covered with maquette and mildewed velvet, fabric attached with copper nails.”
This really is an extraordinary novel; a literary thriller, and a stunning portrait of creativity and grieving. Smith weaves the historical and contemporary together to tell forgotten, unknown stories; giving characters the stories they deserve. It is a fascinating subject, a heartbreaking tale, and a genuine mystery to solve.