When I first read THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS, I couldn’t believe that author Dominic Smith wasn’t an art historian because he definitely understands how art historians think. I work at an art research library and I instantly recognized the language: a mixture of sensitivity to nuance, precise technical understanding, and a sense of profound awe. In academic writing, it can get a little tedious, but Smith’s prose is lyrical and unpretentious and it pulled me in right away. What I found was a beautiful story about how different people react to loss, betrayal, and grief.
THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS considers what happens on both sides of a theft, specifically how a person might gain from a loss and what a person who takes from others stands to lose.
Sara de Vos is a seventeenth-century Dutch painter and one of very few women admitted to the painters’ Guild of St. Luke. When Sara loses her seven-year-old daughter to an illness, she crafts At the Edge of a Wood, the painting that creates the conflict at the heart of the novel. More than 300 years later, patent lawyer Marty de Groot, who has been transfixed by the painting throughout his adult life, is now the owner. When he discovers that it’s been stolen and replaced with a forgery, he tracks down the forger: painting conservationist Ellie Shipley.
Ellie is young, passionate, and dedicated, but also reclusive and riddled with self-doubt—and Sara’s painting ensnares her, too. Even she doesn’t fully understand why she would risk her career to make the fake, but the injury of her crime spurs Marty to a cruel theft of his own, and the actions of all three characters eventually lead them to unexpected conclusions.
Smith builds his characters’ flaws and weaknesses with patience and detail, so when their mistakes start catching up to them, it’s easy to understand and even pity them. However, the unraveling happens slowly, and Smith gives no ground in terms of pacing; he makes you wait for it. The book reads as quiet and thoughtful, but I was biting my nails through the last third, waiting for the hammer to fall.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Smith wrote about a painting when his novel feels a lot like stepping into one. THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS is an intimate portrait of the lives of three people united by an obsession with what was taken from them. It engaged me, surprised me, and taught me more about the creation and love of art than I knew before.