The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

9780374106683_p0_v1_s192x300  Dominic Smith adds to the list of stories about famous art thefts with his book about an obscure Dutch painter in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.  Crossing through three time periods, Smith follows the creation, forgery, and final resolution of a fictional Dutch masterpiece.

Like Barbara Shapiro’s The Art Forger, Smith creates drama around the lives of the artists and those involved in the art world while educating the reader in art history.  Although Smith seems more intent on the minute details and history of Dutch painters lives and technique, the plight of his main character, Australian Ellie Shipley, holds the story together.  When I found myself nodding off through the heavy descriptions of preparing a canvas or muddling through the politics of old Dutch guilds, I read on to find out if Ellie, the forger art student who became renowned as an art historian, could survive her minor indiscretion and her major crime.

Smith flips disconcertedly from Sara de Vos, an early seventeenth century painter – one of the few women admitted to the art Guild – to Ellie Shipley in the 1950s when she forges the only painting by Sara de Vos, and then to Ellie’s life as a professor and curator in the twenty-first century when she faces the possibility of her past secret crime ruining her life.  Although the dates are clearly identified at the beginning of chapters, the jumping through time zones becomes somewhat frenetic and I often wanted to skip through the lecture on past lives to get to the present.

The author in his note before the story states that he  “fuses biographical details from several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age  {to create a story around} Sarah van Baalbergen, the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.  Smith’s understanding of the era is notable as he deftly describes life and hardship for the struggling artists who were contemporaries of Rembrandt.  After being banned by the Guild and deserted by her husband, a fellow artist, Smith’s  fictional Sara de Vos stands with the well-known Dutch painter Judith Leyster as a leader in her time.

Ellie Shipley’s only masterpiece was her forgery of the de Vos painting for a shady art dealer.  As a starving graduate student working on her dissertation, Shipley eventually finds herself involved with Marty de Groot, a wealthy Manhattan lawyer and the owner of the original which has been in his family for 300 years.  When their paths cross again fifty years later, Ellie is in the awkward position of curating an art exhibit with two identical paintings for a show of women painters of the Dutch Golden Age at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One is the original Sara de Vos painting, “At the Edge of a Wood,” stolen from de Groot; the other is the forgery, painted by Shipley. 

The story was a long slow slog, missing the excitement of a Shapiro book, but this is not a crime novel.  The yearning and romance of the two key characters – Sara de Vos and Ellie Shipley – are enmeshed in a well-researched treatise on the art world and Dutch women painters. The story is educational to a fault, and perhaps an improvement over a stuffy lecture hall on learning about the Dutch and their art.  

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