The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

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by Dominic Smith

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“Written in prose so clear that we absorb its images as if by mind meld, “The Last Painting” is gorgeous storytelling: wry, playful, and utterly alive, with an almost tactile awareness of the emotional contours of the human heart. Vividly detailed, acutely sensitive to stratifications of gender and class, it’s fiction that keeps you


“Written in prose so clear that we absorb its images as if by mind meld, “The Last Painting” is gorgeous storytelling: wry, playful, and utterly alive, with an almost tactile awareness of the emotional contours of the human heart. Vividly detailed, acutely sensitive to stratifications of gender and class, it’s fiction that keeps you up at night — first because you’re barreling through the book, then because you’ve slowed your pace to a crawl, savoring the suspense.” —Boston Globe

A New York Times Bestseller

A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice


Amsterdam, 1631: Sara de Vos becomes the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the city’s Guild of St. Luke. Though women do not paint landscapes (they are generally restricted to indoor subjects), a wintry outdoor scene haunts Sara: She cannot shake the image of a young girl from a nearby village, standing alone beside a silver birch at dusk, staring out at a group of skaters on the frozen river below. Defying the expectations of her time, she decides to paint it.

New York City, 1957: The only known surviving work of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, hangs in the bedroom of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer, Marty de Groot, a descendant of the original owner. It is a beautiful but comfortless landscape. The lawyer’s marriage is prominent but comfortless, too. When a struggling art history grad student, Ellie Shipley, agrees to forge the painting for a dubious art dealer, she finds herself entangled with its owner in ways no one could predict.

Sydney, 2000: Now a celebrated art historian and curator, Ellie Shipley is mounting an exhibition in her field of specialization: female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. When it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and her forgery are en route to her museum, the life she has carefully constructed threatens to unravel entirely and irrevocably.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Carmela Ciuraru
This intriguing, suspenseful novel examines the technical aspects of art making and the anguish that drives it.
The New York Times Book Review - Kathryn Harrison
As though caught between a pair of opposing mirrors, the novel's themes and images reflect forward and backward in time, its plot sprinkled with uncanny details…The character of Sara de Vos is as much a meticulous fake as Ellie's forged painting, the success of both based in solid research…Apart from the story's firm historical grounding, the narrative has a supple omniscience that glides, Möbius-like, among the centuries without a snag. Smith's 1637 is as convincing a realization as his 1957 or 2000, Amsterdam in its Golden Age no less vivid than millennial Manhattan…The Last Painting of Sara de Vos may begin as a mystery about a crime, but by the end the reader sees far beneath that surface: All along it was a mystery of the heart.
Publishers Weekly
Smith’s (Bright and Distant Shores) novel centers on two women who live hundreds of years apart yet are inextricably linked. When Dutch artists Barent and Sara de Vos lose their daughter to the plague in 1635, the couple falls into emotional and financial decline. Despite misfortune and the rules of her guild (women don’t do landscapes), Sara completes At the Edge of a Wood, a haunting winter scene. By 1958, wealthy New Yorker Marty de Groot has inherited the painting, but after a charity event in his Upper East Side apartment, he discovers it’s been replaced with a forgery. Marty’s search for the original leads him to Brooklyn and Ellie Shipley, grad student and first-time forger. Years later, Marty and Ellie meet again in Sydney, where Ellie’s academic life is threatened by the prospect of Marty’s original and her fake appearing at the same exhibition. As in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the technical process and ineffable aspects of creating a masterpiece enrich this novel, but Smith had to invent his masterpieces because no works survive by the real-life Sarah van Baalbergen, who was the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke. Smith’s paintings, like his settings, come alive through detail: the Gowanus Expressway, ruins of an old Dutch village, two women from different times and places both able to capture on canvas simultaneous beauty and sadness. Agent: Emily Forland, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“An elegant page-turner that carries its erudition effortlessly on an energetic plot . . . His narratives may be complex, but that quality only enhances their suspense . . . Apart from the story’s firm historical grounding, the narrative has a supple omniscience that glides, Möbius-like, among the centuries without a snag . . . Smith’s 1637 is as convincing a realization as his 1957 or 2000, Amsterdam in its Golden Age no less vivid than millennial Manhattan . . . The Last Painting of Sara de Vos may begin as a mystery about a crime, but by the end the reader sees far beneath that surface: All along it was a mystery of the heart.” —Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

"Riveting . . . His descriptions are beautifully precise . . . The genius of Smith’s book is not just the caper plot but also the interweaving of three alternating timelines and locations to tell a wider, suspenseful story of one painting’s rippling impact on three people over multiple centuries and locations . . . Smith’s book absorbs you from the start." --Washington Post

"Lustrous . . . Fans of epoch-hopping fictions such as Cunningham's and David Mitchell's will enjoy tracing understated commonalities between the various plot lines and period-specific settings, which Smith nimbly depicts . . . Both melancholy and defiant, Smith's novel leaves us with the sense that the truths we make are no less valuable for being inexact." --Chicago Tribune

“Written in prose so clear that we absorb its images as if by mind meld, “The Last Painting” is gorgeous storytelling: wry, playful, and utterly alive, with an almost tactile awareness of the emotional contours of the human heart. Vividly detailed, acutely sensitive to stratifications of gender and class, it’s fiction that keeps you up at night — first because you’re barreling through the book, then because you’ve slowed your pace to a crawl, savoring the suspense.” —Boston Globe

“Rapturous . . . Smith’s writing is incandescent from the first sentence . . . With a virtuoso sense of place, [Smith] pulls you into very different worlds . . . In this extraordinary narrative, lives, like paintings, can be great works of art, dependent on the minutest of decisions and happenstance. So, too, can novels, and in this sublime work about longing, creativity, love and loss, Smith explores what is authentic and what is hidden, on both the canvas and in the human heart.” —San Francisco Chronicle

"This beautiful meditation on love, loss and art is as luminous as a Vermeer." —People

"Equal parts suspense tale and exploration of beauty and loss, this vivid novel charts the journey of one 17th-century Dutch painting as it passes through time, nations, and the lives of all who touch it." —O, The Oprah Magazine

"The Last Painting of Sara de Vos does what the best books can do: sweep the reader into unfamiliar worlds filled with intriguing characters . . . [a] true pleasure to read." —Bookpage

“Audacious . . . Absolutely transporting” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

"Art fans and historical fiction fans, this one's for you . . . Get ready to be blown away." —Bustle

"In the company of recent art world novels such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Peter Heller’s The Painter, along comes Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a sublime tale of one woman’s lost art, another woman’s tragic mistake, and a privileged man’s link between the two . . . Smith excels at offering insight into his reserved characters’ psyches through subtle details and masterfully juggles time and place, as well as the various machinations, with dexterity and a lyrical touch for description. There’s a lovely, genteel beauty here. As with Vermeer’s still lifes, the novel has a serene quality that belies its tension and intrigue." —Dallas Morning News

"Lovely, quietly resonant . . . Smith [has a] singular gift for conjuring distant histories. In his hands, the damp cobblestones and canals of 1600s Holland and the shabby gentility of Eisenhower-era New York feel as real and tactile and tinged with magic as de Vos’ indelible brushstrokes." —Entertainment Weekly

"[I]n his new novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Australian-American writer Dominic Smith removes the barriers between the artist, the work and the viewer in a moving exploration of the way art impacts us . . . Laced with subtle tension and emotion, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is exquisitely human, highlighting characters who are endearing even at their worst. Smith’s novel illustrates why art remains a powerful force, both for those who create it and those who view it." —Paste Magazine

"A beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life." —Kirkus (starred review)

“Highly evocative of time and place, this stunning novel explores a triumvirate of fate, choice, and consequence and is worthy of comparison to Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring and Donna Tartt'sThe Goldfinch . . . Just as a painter may utilize thousands of fine brushstrokes, Smith slowly creates a masterly, multilayered story that will dazzle readers of fine historical fiction.” —Library Journal (starred review)

"In this wonderfully engaging novel, centered on the paintings of fictional seventeenth-century Dutch artist Sara de Vos, Smith immerses the reader in three vibrant time periods . . . Rich in historical detail, the novel explores the immense challenges faced by women in the arts (past and present), provides a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of the art world across the centuries, and illustrates the transformative power and influence of great art. An outstanding achievement, filled with flawed and fascinating characters. —Booklist (starred review)

"A mesmerizing and magically faux historical novel . . . The Last Painting of Sara de Vosis a splendid thing: a riveting mystery set in the rarified world of art collection about a stolen masterpiece and a gorgeous, haunting novel rooted in history, an incandescent achievement of literary imagination." —Jeanette Zwart, Shelf Awareness

"As in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the technical process and ineffable aspects of creating a masterpiece enrich this novel, but Smith had to invent his masterpieces because no works survive by the real-life Sarah van Baalbergen, who was the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke. Smith’s paintings, like his settings, come alive through detail: the Gowanus Expressway, ruins of an old Dutch village, two women from different times and places both able to capture on canvas simultaneous beauty and sadness." —Publishers Weekly

“Gliding gracefully from grungy 1950s Brooklyn to the lucent interiors of Golden Age Holland and the sun-splashed streets of contemporary Sydney, the novel links the lives of two troubled, enigmatic, and hugely talented young women, one of them an artist, the other, her forger. A page-turning book with much to say about the pain and exhilaration of art and life.” Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a story told in layers of light. From afar, this novel is so beautiful, the prose so clear and vivid, that it seems effortless; on closer examination, one sees the rich thematic palette Dominic Smith has used. This is a novel of love and longing, of authenticity and ethical shadows, and, most compelling, of art as alchemy, the way that it can turn grief to profound beauty.”Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies and the New York Times-bestselling Arcadia

“As this story of art, beauty, deception, and the harshest kinds of loss ranged over continents and centuries, I was completely transfixed by the sense of unfolding revelation. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is, quite simply, one of the best novels I have ever read, and as close to perfect as any book I’m likely to encounter in my reading life. One of those rare books I’ll return to again and again in the coming years.”—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist

“In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith moves effortlessly between his seventeenth century artist and those who fall under the spell of her work more than three hundred years later. Smith is a writer of huge gifts and his descriptions of the painting and of those who fall in love with it (and with each other) are rendered with wondrous intelligence and keen wit. The result is a novel of surprising beauty and piercing suspense. I couldn't stop turning the pages even while the last thing I wanted was to reach the end.”Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

"The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a deeply researched, beautifully written, intellectually absorbing novel that also has the qualities of a page-turner . . . I doubt you will be disappointed: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tremendous story of art, deception, love, ambition and the place of women in the world, and in history. From the opening pages you know you are in the hands of a writer at the top of his game." The Australian

Library Journal
★ 11/01/2015
In this fine novel from Smith (Bright & Distant Shores), the lives of three people converge over three centuries, tethered by a rare work of art. During the Dutch golden age of painting, artist Sara de Vos creates a haunting image on canvas. In time, it will become her only remaining work. Years later, the painting is inherited by a wealthy, somewhat restless lawyer in New York City. The work is then unwittingly forged by an Australian student of art history; the original is stolen and replaced by the copy. Fifty years later, the paintings, the forger, and the lawyer come together seemingly via an act of synchronicity. Hovering throughout the story is the question: Does this painting somehow possess an eerie influence over the people who have encountered it? Highly evocative of time and place, this stunning novel explores a triumvirate of fate, choice, and consequence and is worthy of comparison to Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. VERDICT Just as a painter may utilize thousands of fine brushstrokes, Smith slowly creates a masterly, multilayered story that will dazzle readers of fine historical fiction.—Susanne Wells, Indianapolis P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-03-05
Smith's latest novel (Bright and Distant Shores, 2011, etc.) is a rich and detailed story that connects a 17th-century Dutch painting to its 20th-century American owner and the lonely but fervent art student who makes the life-changing decision to forge it.Marty de Groot, a Manhattan lawyer plagued by infertility and the stuffiness that comes from centuries of familial wealth, has one special thing to his name: a collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, including rare pieces by female artists of the era. At the Edge of the Wood is the only work attributed to Sarah de Vos, and it's hung above the marital bed in Marty's Park Avenue triplex for generations. Until one fall day in 1957 it's plucked off his wall and replaced by a meticulously executed forgery. Behind this deception is not a mastermind but an Australian graduate student named Ellie Shipley, who was approached by a secretive art dealer to replicate the painting. Ellie lives and thinks like a member of the Dutch golden age, boiling rabbit pelts in her claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment for glue, pulling apart antique canvases to understand their bones, and building them up again layer by layer. This is a woman who sees herself in de Vos and would do anything to merge their legacies together. In showing how this is a monumental occasion in Ellie's life, a truly intimate experience for her, Smith turns forgery into art, replication into longing, deceit into an act of love: Ellie works in "topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that's three hundred years old." The narrative stretches from a period of grief in de Vos' life that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood, to 1950s New York to the year 2000 at a museum in Sydney where original and forgery meet—in turn reconnecting Ellie with Marty. "Here comes Marty de Groot, the wrecking ball of the past": just one example of the suspense Smith manages to carry throughout his narrative, suspense bound up in brilliant layers of paint and the people who dedicate their lives to appreciating its value.This is a beautiful, patient, and timeless book, one that builds upon centuries and shows how the smallest choices—like the chosen mix for yellow paint—can be the definitive markings of an entire life.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

A Novel

By Dominic Smith

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Dominic Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-10668-3


Upper East Side


The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space. Plucked from the wall right above the marital bed during a charity dinner for orphans. This is how Marty de Groot will tell the story in the years ahead, how he'll spin it for the partners at the law firm and quip it to comedic life at dinner parties and over drinks at the Racquet Club. We're dipping shrimp in cocktail sauce, working Rachel's best china out on the terrace because it's mild for early November, you understand, while two thugs — middlemen disguised as caterers, let's say — are swapping out the real painting with a meticulous fake. He'll be particularly proud of that last phrase — meticulous fake. He'll use it with friends and insurance agents and the private investigator, because it sets up the rising action of the story, suggests that a prodigy or mastermind has been patiently plotting against him, just as the Russians have been conspiring all these years to colonize the stratosphere. The phrase will also help disguise the fact that Marty didn't notice the beautiful forgery for months.

What he'll omit when he tells the story to most people is that At the Edge of a Wood has been in his family for more than three centuries, bequeathed to him on his father's deathbed. He won't mention that it's the only surviving painting of Sara de Vos, the first woman to be admitted, in 1631, as a master to a Guild of St. Luke in Holland. And who could he tell that he liked to stare up at the girl's pale and cryptic face while he made slow, contemplative love to his melancholic wife in the years after her second miscarriage? No, he'll keep all that to himself, like a private faith to a fickle god. He's agnostic but prone to bouts of wild superstition, a personality flourish he tries to conceal. He will come to suspect that the painting's disappearance has caused Rachel's long depression to end and accounts for his firm finally making him partner. Or that the cursed painting explains three hundred years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness, and stroke in his bloodline. Wherever the painting hung — in London, Amsterdam, or New York — the previous owners, he comes to realize, never lived past the age of sixty.

* * *

The Rent-a-Beats are Rachel's way of trying to rouse herself back to the living. Feeling bored by the prospect of gently drunk patent attorneys in French cuffs, with conversations about real estate and Nantucket sailing jaunts, she'd remembered an ad she'd clipped from an alumni magazine and fetched it from her recipe box. Add zest to your Tuxedo Park party ... rent a Beat. Completely equipped: beard, eye shades, old army jacket, Levi's, frayed shirt, sneakers or sandals (optional). Deductions allowed for no beard, baths, shoes, or haircuts. Lady Beats also available.

If they were going to raise money for the city's orphans every year — it sounded Dickensian, even to her — then why not let the city in, bring up some grit and color from the Lower East Side and the Village. When she called the number in the ad a woman with an adenoidal voice answered, apparently reading from a script. For a flat rate of $250, the woman promised without inflection, you can have two artists, two poets, and two intellectuals show up at a designated time. Rachel imagined a basement in Queens where divorcées with headsets sat like African violets under fluorescent lights. She imagined out-of-work actors trawling in from Hoboken with her address written on a matchbook. The woman asked, "How many Beats would you like, ma'am?" and "Do you prefer the women in Mexican shawls or bolero jackets?" By the end of the call, Rachel had chosen their complete wardrobe, right down to the ballet flats, berets, sunglasses, and silver earrings. That was weeks ago and now — on the day of the event — she wonders if the whole idea isn't in bad taste. A Russian dog is orbiting the planet and she fears her little prank will be judged as frivolous and unpatriotic. She broods about it all morning, unable to tell Marty that a troupe of bohemians will be arriving at nine sharp, during after-dinner cocktails.

* * *

Marty has planned some fun of his own, a little demonstration for his guests and colleagues. He keeps it to himself while Rachel bustles among the caterers. By five, all three floors of the prewar penthouse smell like lilies and bread and it jolts his senses awake. He stands by the French doors on the top floor, out of the way, watching the rooms burnish with late-afternoon light. There's a fleeting sense of nostalgia and satisfaction as dusk pours through the space. Everything seems impossibly solid and real at this time of day and year, every object flushed with significance. Growing up, he'd always found this room distant and museum-like. The woody, gloaming interiors in the background of seventeenth- century Dutch portraits felt oppressive, the lacquered oriental boxes seemed austere and aloof, but now that these things belong to him he finds comfort in staring at them in that hour before the first lamp is switched on. A life contained, parsed into objects. When he closes his eyes he can smell the linseed oil in the seascapes or the Turkish prayer rugs that somehow smell like warming hay. He pours two fingers of single malt and anchors himself in the Danish leather recliner — his Hamlet chair, Rachel calls it. Carraway, the ten-year-old beagle, comes trotting from down the hallway, scampers across the parquet floor, his metal tag jangling. Marty drops one hand and lets the dog lick his fingertips. And that's when he sees Rachel through the doorway of the galley kitchen, moving among the caterers in their crisp white aprons. Head bent, one hand idling her pearl necklace, she's conferring with such diplomacy that it could be a matter of national security they're talking about instead of rice pilaf and wild salmon. It occurs to him that she's always been at her best in the throes of preparation — a trip, a dinner, a party. Lately, there's been the quiet fatigue they both ignore. She's constantly on the verge of a breathy intake of air and whenever she walks into a room, it seems she's had to pause out in the hallway to first gather herself up, like an actor walking onstage. Sometimes, when he comes home late from the office, he'll find her asleep in the living room with all the lights out and Carraway curled beside her. Or he finds empty wineglasses around the house, in the library, beside the bed, and Russian novels tucked between cushions or left out on the terrace to bleach and dog-ear in the weather.

She catches his eye and comes toward him. He rubs behind Carraway's ears, smiling up at her. The last five years, he thinks, have taken twenty years off the clock. He turned forty in the spring, a capstone to his stalled-out career and their inability to bring children into the world. It occurs to him that he'd started everything late — law school, a career, the first overtures toward a family. Inherited wealth held him back, stunted him until his early thirties. Seven years, up or out, was the conventional wisdom for aspiring partners at the firm, and now he is in his seventh year. He sees it in Rachel's gaze as she draws nearer — Why did we wait so long? She's eight years younger than he is but less resilient. Not frail, but cautious and easily bruised. For a suspended moment he thinks she's approaching with a staid, wifely kiss, one of those rehearsed gestures she occasionally plucks from the folds of her depression. Instead, she tells him not to get dog hair on his dress slacks. She passes close enough that he can smell burgundy on her breath and he suddenly wonders what the caterers think of her, then despises himself for caring. He watches her as she heads down the hallway toward the bedroom and disappears. He sits there until the room bloats with darkness. Eventually, he gets up and walks room to room, switching on the lamps.

* * *

A little before seven, Hart Hanover, the building doorman, calls up to tell the de Groots that he's sending up Clay and Celia Thomas, the first of their guests. Marty thanks him and remembers to ask Hart about his mother, a woman quietly dying of cancer out in Queens. "Soldiering on, Mr. de Groot, thanks for asking." Hart has been the doorman at the corner of East Eightieth and Fifth Avenue since before Marty's father bought the penthouse in the late 1920s. The narrow, fourteen-story building has only six apartments, and each of the residents treats Hart like a kindly uncle fallen on hard times. Marty tells him they'll send down a dinner tray from the caterers and hangs up. He and Rachel take the stairs to the lower floor and wait for the elevator. The managing partner and his wife are always the first to arrive and the first to leave, a couple in their sixties who host summer dinner parties that end while it's still light out.

The elevator doors open and the Thomases step out onto the black marble floor of the foyer. Rachel always insists on taking coats and hats herself and there's something about this ritual, this pretense of domestic humility, that gets Marty worked up. The housekeeper, Hester, is probably up in her room watching television, since Rachel made a show of giving her most of the night off. He stands there watching his wife take his boss's camel hair overcoat — it's too warm for such a coat — and Celia's cashmere shawl. In the first moments after arrival, Marty remembers how uncomfortable Clay always looks when he comes over. Clay is cut from a lineage of pious New England Brahmins like a slab of blue slate; he's from a bloodline of clergy, intellectuals, and taciturn privilege. He seems to silently begrudge Marty's inherited wealth, works his jaws a little like he can taste iron in his mouth every time he comes over. Marty suspects this is the reason he still hasn't been made partner — his triplex with unobstructed views across the Met and Central Park offends his boss's sense of patrician restraint.

Clay thrusts his hands into his tuxedo pants and leans onto the balls of his feet, his face brimming with forced good cheer. He looks to Marty like a man who's been out chopping firewood in a dinner jacket, invigorated by a moment of bracing contact with the elements.

Clay says, "Did you add a new floor to the place, Marty? I swear it gets bigger every time we come over!"

Marty offers up a chuckle but refuses to answer. He shakes Clay's hand — a gesture he would never make at the office — and kisses Celia on the cheek. Behind his guests, he sees Rachel half-engulfed by the shadow of the coat closet, running her hand over the plush of Celia's shawl. She might go into that closet and never return, he thinks.

"He made us trek all the way north along the park," Celia says.

"Let's get you both a drink upstairs," Rachel says, guiding them toward the stairwell.

Clay removes his heavy spectacles and rubs the lenses with a handkerchief. In the lamplight of the hallway Marty notices an angry red welt on the bridge of Clay's nose and thinks of a country parson on the brink of a fiery sermon.

Clay says, "If we're financing orphans, I thought we should walk. Plus it's a beautiful night. We'll taxi it back, don't worry, darling. I'm warning you, Marty, I'm famished from that walk. Ready to eat like a Viking."

"You're in luck," Marty says. "Rachel's hired every caterer in the state."

They arrive on 14 and walk down the hallway toward the terrace, passing the closed doors of the bedrooms. Marty gets this quirk from his dead father, a Dutch banker with a strong preference for the separation of public and private space. Marty even keeps his favorite books in the bedroom instead of the library because he considers them a kind of confession. As they pass the kitchen and come upon the great room, Marty can hear the string quartet starting up outside and above the terrace wall he sees the apartment towers across the park lit up like ocean liners, stippling the darkness above the tree crowns. He hears the faintest sigh leaving Celia's mouth and knows it's the sound of envy. He thinks of the Thomases' sober stone house with its narrow windows and the chalky smell of a rectory. Clay clears his throat as they survey the terrace banquet tables piled with hors d'oeuvres, the pyramid of glinting ice and shrimp.

Swallowing, Celia says, "As usual, it looks wonderful, Rachel."

"All I did was make some telephone calls."

"Hardly," Marty says. "It's been like planning the Normandy invasion around here for weeks. Anyway, we thought we'd capitalize on the weather. Feel free to be inside or out."

"Steer me toward a gimlet and a handful of peanuts," Clay says.

Marty hears Clay jangling some loose change in his pockets and pictures him standing before an austere bureau or secretary, plinking quarters and dimes into his tuxedo pants. He's certain there's a penknife in one of those trouser pockets. He says, "Sorry, Clay. You might have to settle for brie and shrimp." He throws one arm out, gesturing to the terrace. The doorbell chimes and Rachel hurries down the hallway before Marty can stop her.

* * *

At two hundred dollars a plate, the Aid Society dinner attracts roughly the same sixty people each year — uptown lawyers, surgeons, CEOs, philanthropist wives, a retired diplomat. It's always black-tie and assigned seating, little place cards in calligraphy on ten round tables. Once a year, Rachel calls a Japanese artist in Chelsea with her guest list. Three days later the place cards arrive in an envelope made of rice paper. Marty keeps a seating chart, a trick he learned from a friend who runs the European art auctions for Sotheby's. He puts the wealthiest guests nearest the silent auction table and instructs the catering staff to replenish their wineglasses every fifteen minutes. This strategy has made a decade of hosting these dinners for the Aid Society the most profitable on record. It yields wildly inflated auction bids on Caribbean cruises, opera tickets, fountain pens, and subscriptions for Yachting magazine. Marty once calculated that Lance Corbin, an orthopedic surgeon who didn't even own a boat, was paying $120 for each issue of his maritime monthly.

The dinner tables are laid out with lilies and antique silverware in the great room, overlooking the terrace. Because it's so warm, cocktails, champagne, and dessert can be served outside, but Marty insists that dinner take place inside, where the lighting is better for signing checks, where Dutch and Flemish genre paintings and landscapes suggest, if not orphans, at least an atmosphere of underprivilege — the peasant hauling an animal haunch into a stone cellar in bad weather; the tavern revelers throwing spoons at a cat; the Avercamp of red-cheeked peasants skating on a frozen canal.

When Rachel calls everyone inside to dinner, the string quartet switches from Rossini sonatas to Bach concertos and adagios. As usual, Rachel and Marty sit at separate tables to maximize their interactions with guests, but several times during the meal Marty notices his wife looking absently into her wineglass. Clay Thomas tells his annual stories of being a World War I medic, of playing soccer with the Italians in a field of mud. Marty routinely swaps out guests from this table but always puts himself dutifully on the Clay Thomas roster. Until he makes partner he'll pretend he's hearing these war stories for the first time every year.

* * *

After dinner and the auction, the guests drift back out onto the terrace. A long table has been set up with flutes of champagne, tiers of profiteroles, ramekins of crème brûlée, Belgian chocolates. As in past years, Rachel leaves the important mingling to Marty. She can never find her way into the banter of the men, or the partners' wives, who all send their children to the same schools and colleges, so she's content to find the outliers. The sister of the important socialite or the out-of-town cousin of some charity board member — these are the people she's most comfortable with, the ones who don't ask if she'd ever wanted to start a family. Marty accuses her of hiding in her own home, of having cramped, awkward conversations with total strangers. He tells her that the partners think she's aloof instead of shy and fragile. From the corner of the terrace, from the trailing edge of a conversation about the stray mongrel the Russian scientists found on a Moscow street, Rachel can see the ornate clock on the wall of the great room and realizes the Rent-a-Beats will be here in less than half an hour. She surveys the crowd to calculate how the troupe might go over. She can't decide if she's trying to add levity to the evening or ambush the entire event. If she's misread the situation then she'll meet the bohemians in the foyer, pay them their cash fee, and send them back into the night.


Excerpted from The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2016 Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Dominic Smith grew up in Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of three other novels: Bright and Distant Shores, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, and The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, among other publications. He is the recipient of a new works grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, and a Michener Fellowship. He teaches writing in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
‘The cold air burns her cheeks as she skates along, pushing into long glides, her hands behind her back, the sound of her skate blades like the sharpening of a knife on whetstone. She wants to skate for miles, to fall until midnight into thi bracing pleasure. The bare trees glitter with ice along the riverbank, a complement to the winking stars. The night feels unpeeled, as if she’s burrowed into its flesh. Here is the bone and armature, the trees holding up the sky like the ribs of a ship, the ice hardening the river into a mirror too dull to see the sky’s full reflection… there are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace” The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is the fourth novel by prize-winning Australian-born author, Dominic Smith. “At the Edge of a Wood”: a haunting and evocative landscape from the Dutch Golden Age, painted by the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Sara de Vos, and believed to be her last known work. It had been in Marty de Groot’s family for over three hundred years when it was stolen from his Manhattan bedroom. It was replaced with a forgery that was so skilfully executed, it was six months before he even noticed. Police and insurance agents made no headway, but finally a privately-engaged investigator tracked down the artist. Marty intends to confront the forger, a young Australian woman named Eleanor Shipley, who consults in art restoration and conservation, while completing her dissertation on Dutch women painters of the Golden Age for her art history Ph.D. at Columbia. But his meeting with Ellie does not go quite as he had intended. Smith uses three separate timelines to follow the progress and fates the painting, and those people in whose lives it plays a significant role: the mid-17th Century introduces Sara de Vos and details the circumstances under which her artwork was created; the late-1950s describes the production of the forgery and the aftermath of its discovery; the year 2000 tells of the effects of the threatened exposure of the fake on a hard-won reputation. Smith’s plot is original and his inclusion of a wealth of information on 17th Century Dutch art, on the restoration and preservation of artworks and on the making of forgeries gives it a genuine feel. His characters are multi-faceted and interesting, some genuine, some misrepresenting who they are and what they know. How lives are affected by secrets kept, by regret and by guilt over past actions is a major element of this story. Smith easily conveys the 17th Century, including many interesting details about everyday life and the world of the Golden Age artist in the Netherlands; his portrayal Sydney during the Millennium is equally effective; his rendering of the late-1950s is less convincing. His blend of fiction with historical fact makes for a very readable tale. With thanks to Allen&Unwin for this copy to read and review 4.5 stars
Anonymous 3 months ago
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jak18 5 months ago
Sara de Vos was a fictional painter in 1600s Netherlands, loosely based on one of the few female painters of that time. Dominic Smith (Australian and who I thought was female all the time I was reading but is a man) imagines Sara as one of only 25 women who belonged to the Guilds of St Luke, an entity that controlled all aspects of the professional life of artists. It was the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Only one of her paintings still exists in the 20th century. On the upper east side of New York City in 1957, Marty de Groot's favorite painting is stolen from his penthouse during a party and replaced with a nearly flawless forgery. The original painting, At the Edge of a Wood, was painted by Sara de Vos in the early 1600s. The fake was done by Ellie Shipley due to a youthful folly that she will live to regret. Ellie is an aspiring young painter living in her squalid Brooklyn apartment amid canvases, linseed oil, and tubes of paint. (You learn a lot about painting in this book and one of the reading group members who is a painter said it was all accurate.) Being mid the dissertation for her PhD in art history at Columbia, she makes ends meet by working as a restorer of old masterpieces. The rest of the story is told in alternating time periods. Bad things happen to Sara and Ellie. Marty de Groot is quite a jerk. But there are bittersweet happy endings and satisfying resolutions. I almost always enjoy novels about artists and art of any kind. This was no exception and a huge cut above most of the current bestsellers
navidad_thelamour 12 months ago
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus. BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need all of it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when to lay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe with The Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those). What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were... See the rest of the review at The Navi Review at or follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview