The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374106683
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About 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.

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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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Author's Note,
Part I,
Upper East Side (November 1957),
Amsterdam/Berckhey (Spring 1635),
Brooklyn (November 1957),
Amsterdam (Winter 1636),
Upper East Side (May 1958),
Sydney (July 2000),
Part II,
Amsterdam (Spring 1637),
New Jersey (August 1958),
Brooklyn (August 1958),
En Route to Sydney (August 2000),
Manhattan (September 1958),
Amsterdam (May 1637),
Sydney (August 2000),
Manhattan (September 1958),
Leaving Amsterdam (Spring 1637),
Sydney (August 2000),
Manhattan (September 1958),
Heemstede (Summer 1637),
Manhattan (October 1958),
Sydney (August 2000),
Heemstede (Summer 1637),
Manhattan (October 1958),
Sydney (August 2000),
Heemstede (Winter 1649/Summer 2000),
Also by Dominic Smith,
A Note About the Author,

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