The last painting of Sara de Vos

by Dominic Smith

Hardcover, 2016






New York : Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.


"This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can't shake them, even long after the reading's done. In his earlier, award-winning novels, Dominic Smith demonstrated a gift for coaxing the past to life. Now, in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, he deftly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth. In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke's in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain--a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she's curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present"--… (more)

Media reviews

"Smith’s book absorbs you from the start."
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"Apart from the story’s firm historical grounding, the narrative has a supple omniscience that glides, Möbius-like, among the centuries without a snag."

User reviews

LibraryThing member ozzer
In THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS, Dominic Smith has created a marvelous triptych that cleverly explores themes of feminism, deceit, betrayal and forgiveness. The first panel is set in Amsterdam during the 1630’s. Sara De Vos and her husband are talented painters who have been suspended from the Guild of St. Luke for selling their work outside the control of the union, thus losing their livelihood. During that period, women could only paint still-lives—tulips were all the rage. Sara does a landscape—“ At the Edge of a Wood”— expressing her grief at the death of her young daughter, Kathrijn. There is a clever twist to this painting that is only revealed at the end of the novel.

The second panel occurs in 1950’s Manhattan. Marty de Groot, a wealthy patent attorney, has inherited Sara’s landscape, which he thinks has been a jinx for his family. When he discovers that his painting has been switched with a clever forgery, he goes in search of the thief, but only finds the forger. Ellie Shipley is a struggling graduate student who has agreed to forge the painting. Although complicit, she knows little about the actual theft. DeGroot plays a game of deceit and betrayal with Ellie that seems to be more about retribution than an honest attempt to actually retrieve his stolen property.

The setting for the final panel is Sydney in 2000. Ellie is now a successful art historian and DeGroot is an octogenarian widower. They meet after a 40-year hiatus because DeGroot has unresolved guilt feelings about how he treated Ellie. He personally brings the recovered De Vos landscape to an exhibit of female Dutch painters that Ellie is curating in Australia. A problem arises when the forgery, masquerading as the original, also arrives from a Dutch museum. If she confesses to being the forger, her career will undoubtedly be destroyed.

The plotting is wonderfully complex; the outcome is satisfying; the main characters are well developed and nuanced; and the details about art forgery and 17th century female Dutch painters provide a deft narrative and an agreeable read.
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LibraryThing member jessibud2
I listened to this book in audiobook format, unabridged. About halfway through, though, I did something I rarely do: I borrowed a hard copy from the library as well, as there were parts I wanted to look back at and that is the one thing that is not easy to do with an audiobook. This proved to be a good decision.

This is almost time travel story. In 1631, Sara de Vos is the wife of a landscape painter, and is a talented painter in her own right, the first woman admitted to Amsterdam's Guild of master painters. Although women usually only paint indoor still lifes, Sara is mesmerized by a scene she has witnessed of a lone girl standing beside the river, watching skaters at dusk, and decided to paint it. After the sudden death of their young daughter, the life that Sara and her husband lead begins to unravel and eventually, comes apart. The painting, however, survives. Fast forward to the 1950s, where a wealthy New York lawyer, Marty de Groot, has owned the painting that has been in family for generations. It hangs over his bed until one day, he suddenly discovers that it has been replaced by a forged copy. The mystery of how or even when, this happened, or where the original might be, obsesses him and he hires a private detective to try to find out. The events that lead him to the truth haunt him in ways that he could not have expected. It isn't until the year 2000 that the circle closes, that the forger and Marty make peace.

Throughout the book, the chapters alternate between Sara's story and Marty's story (as well as Ellie -- the forger's -- story). I have to say, the reader of this audiobook, Edoardo Ballerini, is excellent. His voice is quiet, understated but eloquent and he is masterful at accents and giving voice to the characters. But most of all, the writing is beautiful. I want to include just 2 short excerpts here, from the very end of the book, as a sample:

"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 a whetstone. She wants to skate for miles, to fall until midnight into this bracing pleasure. The bare trees glitter with ice along the riverbank, a complement to the inking 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. Everything flits by except the sky and her thoughts, both of which seem to widen and gyre in a loose, clockwise procession...Everything is strung together on the line of her skates, swooping curves and perfect delineations of her wistful thinking. She is light upon the ice, a weightless passenger."

"Every work is a depiction and a lie. We rearrange the living, exaggerate the light, intimate dusk when it's really noonday sun..."
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Set in the 1600's in the Netherlands, the 1950's in Brooklyn, and contemporary times in Australia, this is the story of an art forgery and the woman who painted the original and the forgery. Sara de Vos was the wife of a painter in the guild in Amsterdam who found himself on hard times. Sara was also an artist but as a woman was unable to sell her art as such. When her husband left her, she found herself painting for a man to clear the husband's debts. In the 1950's Eleanor was a struggling art student specializing in women artists of the time of Rembrandt. She paints a forgery of a privately held painting thinking she will never see the person or the original again. When the owner of the painting discovers that a fake has replaced the original over the bed in his home, he hires a private detective to find the forger. Things get more complicated when he meets Eleanor and sets her up for a terrible revenge. Years later, Eleanor is a curator of a museum in Australia which is doing a collection of Dutch painting; the original and the fake show up.

A good mystery and much about the art world. Well written, descriptive, and believable.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
1600s, Holland, Sara is the first woman admitted to the artist's guild. Her husband was a painter of landscapes, but at that time woman were expected to paint only still life's. After a terrible tragedy changes the fabric of their family, Sara paints a landscape. This painting will affect the fortunes of others down the centuries.

Late 1950's Ellie Shipley is a young woman working on her thesis of Dutch woman painters, she is also working as a cleaner and restorer. She is asked to do something that will come back to haunt her in the near future and culminate in a near disaster decades later.

Martin de Groot, inherited wealth also the owner of several Dutch paintings done by woman and passed down in his family from generation to generation. A discovery he makes will have a profound effect on himself and Ellie.

Like a finished painting all these layers will come together in a final, touching and brilliant uncovering.

Wonderful story, fantastic prose, descriptive, impassioned, even the alternating storylines are used to draw the reader in, heading for a amazing dénouement. Learned so much about art, forgeries, the art world on general and the life of women painters in early times. The character of Sara is actually a composite of all early women Dutch painters, as the author so nicely explains. Shows how one decision can effect our lives in unexpected ways. For me this book was absolutely brilliant.

ARC from Netgalley.
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LibraryThing member techeditor
If you, like me, do not know or care much about the art world, including art history, painting restoration and sales, art museums, etc, you will still probably enjoy THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS. I sure did.

This novel is two stories: one of Sara de Vos, a 17th-century painter in Amsterdam, and the other of Ellie Shipley, also an artist but working as a painting restorer, and Marty de Groot, the owner of a painting by Sara de Vos. The story of Ellie and Marty is during the 20th century, beginning during the 1950s in New York, then skipping to Australia in 2000. We move around among these three periods--the 1600s, the 1950s, and 2000—throughout the book.

While this devise Dominic Smith uses of skipping around from one story to another and one of three periods to another may seem difficult to pull off, he does so. This method is so effective that most readers will love the stories in all three periods. And they will think about these three characters even when they are not actively reading the book.

My book group at the Romeo (Michigan) District Library won copies of THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS from
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LibraryThing member lisapeet
I loved this—an interesting and sensitive interpersonal setup, satisfying writing about art-making, and Smith does a really great job of setting a scene and a space without hammering his descriptions to death. He has a lovely light touch on the visuals, which really makes the difference in a story with multiple settings and a big dose of ekphrasis. A very pleasing read all the way through.… (more)
LibraryThing member flourgirl49
This book ranges from the world of a female Dutch painter (Sara de Vos) in the 1600s to the U.S. in the 1950s (the man who owns the only known painting done by de Vos and a young female art historian/restorer/forger) to the year 2000 in Australia where all of these characters come together, and finally back to Holland for the final denouement. The author writes in such an evocative and atmospheric manner that it is easy to picture the surroundings and feel like you're right there. The book is beautifully and elegantly written. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith, author; Edoardo Ballerina, narrator
Written in a lyrical prose, the fictitious lives of a 17th century artist and a 20th century art forger come to life. The author takes the reader back and forth in time to develop each setting and character, including the owner of the painting, as he points out the parallel challenges of their lives in a language that is poetic, haunting and hypnotic as read by the narrator, completely capturing the reader’s attention and appreciation.
In the fall of 1957 as Sputnik is launched, highly pedigreed and pampered Marty de Groot and his wife Rachel host a boisterous charity dinner. Sometime during that eventful night, the only surviving painting by Sara de Vos, that had been in his family for generations, is stolen and replaced with a copy. When several months later, he finally discovers the theft of what he called “a meticulous” reproduction, de Groot hires a private investigator to locate the painting and also places an advertisement offering a reward for its return. When the identity of the art forger, an Australian named Ellie Shipley, becomes known to him, he devises a plan to get the painting back from her and to report the criminals to the police for appropriate punishment. He assumes the name of Jake Alpert and pretends to hire her to help him choose Flemish art work for his collection. At an auction she attends with him, he instructs he on the art of bidding and is soon enchanted by her innocence, utter love and appreciation for the paintings, and her beautiful descriptions of the messages they impart to the eye of the observer. Soon, he begins to court her, although he is married and there are two decades between their ages. His purpose of capturing her and recapturing his painting becomes muddied with his admiration for her. Soon, the path of both of their lives is altered by their meeting. For the reader, in the end, there will be the question of right and wrong, and also whether or not the crime actually benefitted the participants or injured them as time passes.
In the spring of 1635, as the plague begins to rage in the Netherlands, Sara de Vos, her seven year old daughter Kathrijn, and her husband Barent, set out to see the whale that has washed up on the shore. It is a unique opportunity for a landscape artist, and he is eager to paint it. Sara is also an artist, but it is not an acceptable pastime for a woman except in the genre of still life. She assists her husband sketching and painting, but he does not permit her to sign her paintings. On their return home from their outing, they stop on the roadside to eat and a poorly dressed boy about the same age as Kathrijn, comes in contact with her. He seems to be ill and in a few days, so is Karhrijn. She succumbs to the plague, and Sara and Barent are stricken with grief. As more and more people are stricken and die, the market for art dries up. To avoid being sent to debtor’s prison, Barent abandons his wife, leaving her to deal with his debts to the man who had commissioned paintings from him which he failed to deliver. That man is Cornelis Groen. Sara begins to work for him in an attempt to repay the debt. How her life plays out afterward defines the painting that is forged and also the fate of the rest of her art work and life. One will be left to wonder if her husband’s betrayal ultimately hurt or enriched her future life.
As the story plays out, the characters are very well developed. They become real, although they are not, and the life for each character, in their own century, is authentically portrayed. The art world and the art work is discussed with such descriptive language that beautiful paintings soon appear in the mind’s eye of the reader, and it is easy to imagine the de Vos painting, as well as other art works, hanging in a home or in a museum, or even earlier, in the act of its being painted by the artist. As the painting called At The Edge of a Wood is taken and reemerges, as its theft is unraveled, the tale travels to the Netherlands with the artist, to Australia with the forger and to the United States with the privileged owner where it had hung for decades in the bedroom of a fashionable penthouse in Manhattan.
I listened to the audio and had to turn to a print copy to clear up my confusion. In the reading, the time line and location sometimes became confused since chapters did not alternate between characters and time or place with a set pattern. It was, therefore, occasionally difficult to discern whose life was being detailed, Ellie’s or Sara’s. For that reason, the print version is preferred, even though the audio was read well, with a resonant and lyrical presentation appropriate to the narrative.
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LibraryThing member bogopea
A historical novel revolving between the 17th century (time of Sara De Vos life), the 1950's NYC and 2000 Australia (times of art restorer/painter Ellie Shipley and Marty de Groot, the owner of a painting by Sara de Vos). The author segues between time periods, expertly weaving the three eras together and creating three wonderful characters in the telling. I loved the end of their stories.… (more)
LibraryThing member brangwinn
This is a beautiful story about a female Dutch painter in the 17th century. Married to a painter who has fallen into disgrace the family is thrown into poverty. The death of their only daughter and the realization that she is stuck with her husband’s unpaid bills makes Sara take the offer to paint a village far away from Amsterdam. This commission turns into a blessing because along with her landscape painting she finds real happiness. The story is actually two stories. The other story set in the 1950’s is a young art student, Ellie, who creates a forgery of Sara de Vos’ only known painting and how this forgery haunts her, right up to the end as she recovers the real painting. If you are a fan of The Girl with the Pearl Earring you will enjoy this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member lilbooks22
I liked the concept of this book; fraud, stolen art, and a sort of innocent accomplice. This all seemed very interesting. Plus, I really like that the story goes from each time period in burst; very interesting. However, I gave this book a low review because I thought the story was a little dry. It had potential but I thought the author went way too much into how the painting was physically; i.e. the taste, the smell, the feeling, etc. It was a bit much for me. Also, the story never seemed to get rolling. The ‘action’ was minimal. All this said, however, I do believe that to the right reader this book would be great, that just was not me.

Thanks to Goodreads via Giveaway and the Author for the copy.
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LibraryThing member jjaylynny
I'm a sucker for novels linking the past and present, especially when there is some real, touchable object to connect the two. Call it Red Violin Syndrome. This novel is about one of the few women who painted in Holland during its golden years of painters. Also forgery, art restoration, Australia, Amsterdam, the plague, and bloody blisters-- so, yay.… (more)
LibraryThing member Smits
A female Dutch painter Sara De Vos paints "at the edge of the Wood" in 1631. In 1957 Ellie Shipley , an art students copies it. Marty de Groot has the painting in his family for many years only to discover one day that it is a copy.. He decides to find the forger himself.
This is a great premise for a novel and this is a great read.… (more)
LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
Fairly enjoyable story but I felt the writing was too passive and descriptive. The author would describe the conversation more often than just let the characters speak or even think. Therefore it was hard to really get to know the characters or sympathize with them well. I also found the plot to be lacking in momentum. Even though there was a mystery about how the forgery would come to light, i didn't feel there to be enough crescendo leading up to the reveal (maybe again because I didn't care for the characters very much. Though I enjoyed reading about the painter, the rest of the book seemed rather ho-hum… (more)
LibraryThing member pennykaplan
Well written and engrossing, this novel follows a painting done in the 17th century by a Dutch woman artist through time, theft and imitation.
LibraryThing member tandah
An enjoyable story across three time periods - each of them interesting. I loved how it ended.
LibraryThing member jmoncton
This is the book I recommend when someone asks for a Historic Fiction novel. Set during 3 time periods, the Dutch Renaissance, NYC in the 1950's, and the present, it explores the lives of a female Dutch artist and a modern day art historian. It was fascinating to read about the craft of Dutch landscape painting as well as the technique and finesse used to counterfeit a Dutch masterpiece. It was equally interesting to compare the roles of women in art both in the past and today. Excellent story that was captivating and informative!… (more)
LibraryThing member sherribrari
interesting characters, timeline stories, interesting details about forgery and art repair, 17th C Netherlands painting guilds (Who knew)? Reminded me of the Goldfinch, but wasn't so terribly frustrating!
LibraryThing member Limelite
Beautifully written and complex in its construction, this novel is packed with interesting details about how to forge paintings of the Dutch School. While definitely intellectually engaging, what the novel lacks is an emotional quality that makes the reader care about the people. As a result, "Sara de Vos" falls short of being a great novel.

This is a book that ranges over time, geography, and questions of morality. Perhaps as a result of its epic ambition it falls short of landing anywhere sufficiently to give readers a sense of "being there." So, it's difficult to sink into the story, which in its parallel plot structure possibly jumps around too much. In the midst of "trying" to be too many novels this one probably flew too close to the sun.

I enjoyed the novel in a mostly didactic sense but am afraid I won't find it memorable as a story or moving experience. However, I can recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, intellectual mysteries, and psychological intrigue, especially if they want to learn some arcana concerning the construction of oil paintings.
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LibraryThing member ClareRhoden
So why only three stars?
This book is close to flawless, and has some beautiful writing. The evocation of the three different time periods is excellent, though I felt most convinced by the seventeenth century scenes. There are some exquisite insights into life, love, pain and art, but the 20th century plot completely threw me out of my enjoyment.
What happened? Sara's painting is bought at a clearing sale after her husband abandons her to their debts. It is bought by Piet de Grootin the 1600s. Marty de Groot, the painting's 20th century owner, realises that he's been duped after thieves substitute a forgery in the painting's place. With limitless riches, he's able to hire help to find the forger - Australian Ellie. Instead of reporting her to police, he embarks on a devious course of revenge - to dupe Ellie in her turn that he is a wealthy widower in love with her. So far, OK, and I had quite liked Marty and the tender relationship he had with his childless wife.
Then, unaccountably, he lures Ellie into a weekend away at a small hotel, and takes his time over the most godless sex I've ever read. No joy or sweetness or even great desire. Strange - and then he leaves, his revenge complete, after what amounts to a gratuitous rape (having intercourse with someone while pretending to be someone else? what would you call it?). His revenge would have been complete had he just abandoned Ellie in the hotel, leaving her to discover the returned forgery on her own. Totally revolting. Changed my view of Marty, and nearly made me stop reading!
Forty years later, Marty and Ellie meet again at an art show, where both the forgery and the genuine painting are briefly in the same place at the same time. Marty explains his conduct 40 years before as the result of his having fallen in love with Ellie while trying to wreak revenge on her. Hmm, strange kind of love, mate - do you mean lust? Marty regains some dignity by making all right for Ellie and not unmasking her from her successful career (he still has buckets of money to throw around), but I find myself still very resentful that his selfish 'taking of her virginity' as it is phrased is allowed to pass as if it was nothing.
I had to read on because I wanted to find out what happened to Sara, and I was not at all disappointed by these sections of the book. They are lovely, and I found Sara and her new husband Tomas the most likeable characters in the book.
I confess I'm a bit disappointed. I began this book with very high expectations, and these were realised well into the book, but then there was this sudden twist of surprising rape. It may not strike other readers so strongly, and the book is very worth reading for its other diamonds of expression and philosophy.
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LibraryThing member pmarshall
Sara de Vos, a painter from the golden age of Dutch art, the 1600, Ellie Shipley, an artist and forger, in New York, 1957, a university professor and curator in 2000 in Sydney and Marty de Groot, New York lawyer and caretaker of a family art collector are the major characters of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos which moves from Holland in 628-31 to Sydney in 2000.

Ellie Shipley is curating a show of the female artists of the Dutch Golden age at a Sydney art gallery in 2000. An art gallery in Holland has lent “Girl at the Edge of the Wood,” believed to be de Vos’ last painting. An American collector, de Groot, is also lending the same painting to the gallery. Shipley is about to be faced with the step out of bounds she committed in 1957 when, following a theft at the de Groot home, she make a copy from the original painting.

The plot is intriguing. It reads like a mystery, how will she be found out and what will happen to her. Is it really de Vos’s last painting? What happens to de Vos? I recently started to paint and I appreciate the part that is an art lesson in light. How it creates shadows in the snow, in the folds of drapes, how to determine where it will come from. It has a lesson in how to create a forgery from aging the canvas to how paints were mixed by de Vos and then by Shipley to create the same aging effect. It also moves back and forth in the time periods and characters well.
Reviewed 2018-1-15
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LibraryThing member John_Warner
The eponymous artist was the first female member of the Dutch artist guild in the 17th century. The novel tells the story of the painting through three time periods. The first begins in Amsterdam 1637 after Sara, who has recently lost her daughter, has been suspended from the guild for selling paintings outside of the guild's purview.

The novel's second period is NYC 1957. The painting, which has been in Marty de Groot's family for 300 years, has been stolen replaced with a faked copy. During the investigation of the theft, the married Marty becomes enamored with a 20 years his junior, Ellie Shipley, art historian, restorer and forger.

The third time period is Sydney 2000 when Marty and Ellie are reacquainted after she receives the painting (and the forgery) for a museum expedition.

I'm not sure whether or not it the cold I had when I first began reading this book but I had a difficult time getting into it. For almost half the book, I toyed putting it down unfinished. However, it became engaging as I read the interweaving stories and I was glad I stuck with it.
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LibraryThing member janismack
This is a bok for art fans and historical fiction fans. The story is told in three different times about three differnt characters. It is part mystery about a crime, but in the end we discover much more. This is a mystery of the heart.
LibraryThing member krazy4katz
An interesting novel about a woman who works as an art restorer and somehow gets drawn into a forgery project. The story goes back and forth in time between the 1600s, when the original painter was alive, the 1950s, when the forgery happened, and the year 2000, when all the pieces of the story come together in Australia. The author does this very well, so as a reader I didn't really have whiplash. An excellent character-driven story with some attention to the craft of art and how to paint emotions.… (more)
LibraryThing member asawyer
This was one of my favorite books this year. I saw the author at a local book festival (with his amazing editor/publisher Sarah Crichton) and decided this was a book I had to read. As an aspiring writer, this book made my head swirl. Not only is the story complex, covering 3 time/place periods seamlessly, but the writing is beautiful with each word contributing to the whole. I'll read read this a few more times as I study the art that Mr. Smith has created in this beautiful book.… (more)



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