Award-winning author Dominic Smith is known for bringing history to life and his new novel, The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, is no exception. He has used this novel to look at the way society dealt with women artists at that time in Europe…and they did not deal well with them at all.
I remember as a child asking my mom why there were no women artists when we visited a particular room in a Washington, DC art museum. I think I was about six or seven years old at the time. It seemed strange to me that lots of men from the 17th and 18th century were considered famous painters but no famous women’s artwork was hanging on the walls. Where was the women’s artwork? And, of course, her answer that women’s artwork was not taken seriously at that time only opened a whole new can of worrisome questions that she tried valiantly to answer in a way that a small child could grasp. My pint-sized self was outraged, and I learned my first lesson in gender inequality.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is not just a historical novel but is also a contemporary one. It is not just about the plight of a fictional 17th century Dutch female artist but it’s also set in the present and looks at how decisions we make in a time of weakness can shape our lives for decades to come. Yes, it’s women’s fiction and a cautionary tale but it’s also a suspenseful tale. See what you think…
Sara De Vos and her husband were both artists, and both were admitted to the elite Dutch Delft Guild of St. Luke. It was an honor to which many artists aspired but few were granted and a position which even fewer women attained. Sara’s work was exceptional, as was her husband’s. The Guild’s rules, however, were strenuous and made life difficult for its members. It basically ruled the Dutch art world with an iron fist, yet all of the Dutch artists we now consider among the greats, like Johannes Vermeer, were members. To not be a member meant a life of privation at best and starvation at worst, yet being a member was no guarantee of success either…something Sara and her husband learned the hard way as their lives slowly but surely fell apart, becoming tragic on many different levels.
It’s the 1950’s and Ellie Shipley has moved from Australia to Brooklyn, where she is a graduate student in art history. She knew New York would be expensive but not this expensive. She knew men would rule it but not how pervasive that rule would be. She’s literally fighting her own battle with survival on a daily basis, both professionally and personally. She does some art restoration on the side to try to keep herself fed and she’s really meticulous in her work, fixing damage in a seamless way…but it’s still not enough to pay even her basic expenses at times.
She probably shouldn’t be surprised when she’s approached by an art dealer to paint a copy of a rare painting, At the Edge of the Woods, and she definitely shouldn’t be tempted to do it. She knows it’s a forgery no matter what the dealer calls it. But poverty can make people desperate and Ellie is desperate. To make her decision even more complicated, the landscape painting in question is by the subject of her Master’s degree thesis, Sara De Vos. Only two of Sara’s paintings are known to have survived and no one has seen this one since it was bought by an eccentric Manhattan collector at least 100 years ago. The current owner inherited it from his mother and keeps it hanging in his bedroom. Just to get the opportunity to study it extensively would almost make the risk worth it in Ellie’s mind. And there’s an artistic challenge in reproducing the techniques and materials used so long ago. At least those are a couple of the things she rationalizes while making her decision.
“At the Edge of a Wood (1636)
30″ x 24″
Sara De Vos
A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold, flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice. A brindled dog trots beside a boy as he arcs into a wide turn. One mitten in the air, he’s beckoning to the girl, to us. Up along the riverbank, a village is drowsy with smoke and firelight, flush against the bell of the pewter sky. A single cataract of daylight at the horizon, a meadow dazzled beneath a rent in the clouds, then the revelation of her bare feet in the snow. A raven—quilled in violet and faintly iridescent—caws from a branch beside her. In one hand she holds a frayed black ribbon, twined between slender fingers, and the hem of her dress, visible beneath a long gray shawl, is torn. The girl’s face is mostly in profile, her dark hair loose and tangled about her shoulders. Her eyes are fixed on some distant point—but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank. Her footprints lead back through the snow, toward the wood, beyond the frame. Somehow, she’s walked into this scene from outside the painting, trudged onto the canvas from our world, not hers.”
Ellie agrees to take on the project despite the conflict it represents to her core values. And that decision marks a turning point in her life…it becomes the skeleton in her closet. Because, you see, Ellie goes on to eventually become a prominent art historian who’s well regarded in her field and is renowned for her ability to spot a forgery from a mile away. If they only knew…yes, that’s just one of the thoughts that goes through her head. That long-ago decision means she feels like a fraud and is sure that bad decision will come back to destroy her one day. It’s like living with an ax hanging over your head, never knowing when it will fall and end you.
And now, 50 years later, the ax looks like it’s finally going to fulfill its duty. Ellie is living in Sydney, Australia. When she curates a new exhibit featuring female artists from Holland’s Golden Age, she receives two identical Sara De Vos paintings of At the Edge of the Woods – one from a Holland museum and one from Manhattan. Not only that, but the Manhattan painting’s owner has come to Australia to safeguard the painting Ellie knows is a fake. All these years and it finally comes down to this. What can she do?
I haven’t said much in this synopsis about Sara De Vos; however, The Last Painting of Sara De Vos delves into her life quite a bit and that part of the novel is intriguing. Although Sara is a fictional character and she is based on a compilation of Dutch female artists of her time, she is very real and her circumstances unfortunately ring true for that period. Her plight is very real, and hers is a heartbreaking story. Ellie’s story is almost a morality tale. The decision she makes, which is at complete odds with who she considered herself to be, runs her life from that day on – as bad decisions tend to do. And then there’s the painting, an object that has had a strong effect on three people’s lives; Sara’s, Ellie’s, and the attorney who inherited it. I’ve said almost nothing about him; however, this haunting painting has also deeply affected him for his entire life.
It’s clear that Dominic Smith extensively researched the 17th century world ruled by the Delft Guild of St. Luke because it really comes to life. He is a visual writer and paints the scenes so well that they almost appeared before my eyes as I read. The thread between the two periods, and how society’s attitudes toward gender affect both women, was handled with sensitivity yet nailed it. I’m thinking there’s a good reason Dominic Smith has won so many awards. If you like historical fiction and/or contemporary fiction about women’s lives then I recommend The Last Painting of Sara De Vos. It’s well worth the read!
Author Events & Signings:
4/2/2016 at San Antonio Book Festival in San Antonio, Texas
4/5/2016 at Dallas Museum of Art (Book Launch) in Dallas, Texas
4/9/2016 at Lone Star Book Festival in Houston, Texas
4/10/2016 at LA Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles, California
4/12/2016 at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, North Carolina
4/20/2016 at KOOP Radio (on-air interview) in Austin, Texas
5/12/2016 at Georgetown Public Library in Washington, DC
Can’t wait to read it? The Last Painting of Sara De Vos will be published on April 5, 2016; however, you can pre-order it now from your favorite online bookseller.
I’d love to get your comments on The Last Painting of Sara De Vos , Dominic Smith and/or his other work, and/or this review.