For those who don’t create, the act of forming something beautiful or transcendent from a rough collection of anodyne objects—pigment, paper, words—can appear alchemic. To sidestep mystery (or to forgive our own inability), we often dismiss the effort artwork demands by viewing it as the product of inherent talent.
Fellow artists and scholars move closer to understanding, but the forger taps into the mystery of the creative process in a way few others can imagine. This transgression, which also becomes an intimate inhabitation, fuels the heart of Dominic Smith’s exciting breakout novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
This story of theft, guilt and reconciliation follows three main characters: the first female painter of the Dutch Golden Age admitted to the Guild of St. Luke, the blueblood Manhattan lawyer whose family has owned a rare landscape by the painter for three hundred years and the Australian art student/restorer in Brooklyn who forges that painting. Forty years later, the forgery resurfaces, threatening to destroy precariously constructed lives.
In the first two paragraphs of the novel, Smith proves his control and facility by deftly setting up the time frame and the theft—“The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space”—as well as introduce a work of art endowed with a hex lasting three centuries.
Smith’s greatest gifts in this riveting read are his ability to endow characters with complete inner lives in just a few well-placed phrases and the seeming effortlessness of the unfolding story and its prose. With each detail, whether it’s a character’s internal side remarks or a historical note about harvesting a whale carcass or boiling rabbit pelts for glue, he builds a world—actually, three intersecting worlds—layer by layer.
Told in alternating chapters, the lives of painter, collector and forger blend and echo in ways that none of them could imagine. Each one pivots at a decisive moment. Sara de Vos’s only child has died and her husband has bound them to inescapable debt that bans them from the guild, but inspiration strikes. Marty de Groot, surrounded by wealth and privilege and stalled in his career, drifts from his frail wife after her second miscarriage.
Ellie, alone in a mildewing apartment, finds her only visceral connection through the study of 17th-century painting, eschewing human relationships to convene with long-dead genius. She had fled Sydney but is met with condescension in London as “a bright spark from the colonies.” Now in New York, her dissertation flounders. It strikes her that she “has traveled halfway around the world…to live in studious squalor.” Loss and deceit vibrate across centuries and lives.
While the object that moves across time through the hands of disparate people is a long-trusted writer’s trope—think Don DeLillo’s baseball in Underworld and the rare volume in Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book—Smith keeps the device fresh by rendering it ordinary. What’s more innocuous than a family heirloom landscape painting?
This one, At the Edge of a Wood (1636), has loomed above the de Groot marital bed for generations. When thieves replace it with a “meticulous fake” during a charity dinner benefitting orphans—in an enthralling sequence that involves “Rent-a-Beats” and a ham radio tapping into the frequency from Sputnik Two—Marty doesn’t notice the violation for six months.
Alongside missing and absent children, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos finds some of its most poignant motifs in the sanctity, and violation of, the bedroom, this private space of intimacy and lost dreams. It is the site of the theft of the rare painting, as well as the source of great sadness for the de Groots. It is where Sara’s daughter dies and what becomes her coffin. Above Ellie’s bed, a bloom of mold spreads and discourages visitors. When art dealer Gabriel shows Ellie photographs of a little-seen, sole surviving landscape painted by Sara de Vos and asks Ellie “to work up a faithful copy of it for its rightful owner,” she feels the twinge of doubt, not only because the photographs he provides include the disheveled bed beneath the canvas.
For most of her young life, Ellie has been ignored—by her father who never recovered from the loss of his first-born son, by curators who didn’t appreciate her antipodean credentials. She seems to value her ability over her identity or her vision: “Sometimes they paid her hundreds of dollars for a day’s work, but she found herself unable to spend the money. Because she would have gladly done the work for free, it seemed ill-gotten.” When the question of forgery arises, the test of her ability becomes more important than any ethical dilemma. It takes little effort for her to slip out of her restorer’s coat and into the criminal’s mask.
The rest of Ellie’s life, and to a lesser degree Marty’s, hinges on this single decision and how each seeks forgiveness through acts that have little to do with the original sin. Once Marty discovers the fake and those responsible, he sets in motion a payback reminiscent of the shocking revenge scene in James Salter’s All That Is. This malice seems beyond him, fueled more by other hurts than the theft of property and its attending humiliations.
If there’s any criticism of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, it’s the novel’s structural and thematic perfection. Each storyline comes to a satisfactory close, with all of the players doing basically the right thing, seeking and receiving forgiveness. Even though the novel is a remarkable feat, it leaves this reader with the sinking suspicion that Smith created a checklist to build a best seller—locations both exotic and familiar, illumination of arcane knowledge, artists on the edge of acknowledged greatness and over-the-top minor characters (an eel-fishing detective, a disgruntled and territorial academic) to add color without sabotaging the narrative.
The rich legacy of intentional imperfection appears throughout time. Saint Francis fasted for 39 days instead of 40 as to avoid competing with the holiness of Christ. Some Native American beadwork introduces a wrong color to disrupt the pattern, as Persian rug makers create intentional fault in their intricate designs. Each of these injects a glimmer of wrongness in order to highlight beauty and to submit to a greater power.
Dominic Smith has written a literary novel that will give comfort and enjoyment to the masses. He commands great talent and an artist’s eye for nuance and for weaving stories, but if he had followed a less rigid prescription or left a single stitch unfinished, he might have allowed the reader some threads to worry about long after the fact to keep the novel alive in our imaginations.