In 1631, painter Sara de Vos was a woman ahead of her time. She was the first woman admitted to the Guild of St Luke in Holland, and one of the few women to veer away from the accepted path of still life painting. Sara produced a haunting winter scene At the Edge of the Wood which, when we skip forward 300 years, is hanging in the Manhattan apartment of Marty de Groot.
Marty de Groot is a wealthy patent attorney and the painting that hangs above his bed has been in his family for over 300 years. One night during a charity event the painting is stolen and replaced with a forgery. At the same time in Brooklyn, young Australian Art History grad student Ellie Shipley is restoring paintings to earn some cash while she completes her doctoral thesis. She is approached by her usual contact with a request to undertake, not a restoration this time, but a copy.
Jump forward again half a century to Sydney where Ellie is now curating an exhibition of female Dutch painters, and now as both versions threaten to arrive, the ripples of her actions some four decades earlier have finally reached her and threaten to unravel her career.
As the story moves back and forth between time and place Sara’s tragic life and how she came to paint At the Edge of the Wood is revealed. Marty’s slightly sad story of inherited wealth and a dull job improves when he forges a new identity in order to track down the people responsible for his painting’s theft and forgery. Ellie’s chapters give us an insight into the art world; the craft of art restoration and forgery, art academia and finally the non-public sphere of a major gallery.
The movement between storyline, time and place is done superbly. Dominic Smith has created three fabulous characters but I think Sara, who is a composite of two Dutch women artists from the 17th century, is the most vibrant. This is a page turning book definitely worth reading.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos / Dominic Smith / 384 pages / Paperback
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