Farrar, Straus & Giroux, April 5, 2016.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos moves fluidly through three different time periods, with one painting to connect them all. The painting is a rare landscape by a Dutch Golden Age artist – the first woman to be accepted into the painter’s guild in Holland. Only one painting by Sara de Vos is extant three hundred years later, and it becomes the obsession of two individuals whose lives then collide.
The painting becomes part of the collection of Martin de Groot, a wealthy man living in Manhattan in the 1950s. In between the opulent parties held in his lavish apartment, Martin notices some discrepancies in his favourite painting – and he soon discovers that it has been stolen at one of his events and replaced with a forgery. The trail leads him to Ellie Shipley, an Australian grad student struggling to survive in the city, and a skilled copyist of Golden Age paintings. Ellie is in denial that she is involved in any sort of criminal activity, as she falls in love with the de Vos painting now in her possession.
When Martin and Ellie meet face to face, she is unaware of his connection to the painting – but he knows exactly how she is involved. In spite of his initial animosity towards Ellie, Martin’s feelings soon change – although he continues to hide his identity, which leads to dramatic consequences. Their relationship remains unresolved until the present day, where Ellie works as a museum curator in Sydney, Australia – and continues to live with the fear that her former crime will be discovered.
The three settings wrap around each other and eventually merge, showing the many ways that past deceit can affect the present. All three main characters – Sara, Martin and Ellie – are so intricately described with distinct personalities, and their depth of emotion is so real that I could feel Ellie’s pain, especially. Martin, meanwhile, begins his adventure as a vigilante to discover who stole his painting, but he realizes that his feelings are more about injured pride, and learns that there are more important things in life.
The story itself is captivating, especially the insight into Sara’s original conception of the painting. Smith uses somewhat common plot devices for art/historical fiction, yet they are elevated here. There was so much information about artistic techniques and restoration woven into the novel, but it was always compelling and never dry. The technical details show an appreciation for art that goes beyond the admiration of a pretty picture.
Sara de Vos is actually a compilation of several Golden Age artists, although I found it hard to believe she was not a real person, because her character was so individualized. I thought it was interesting to compare Sara in 17th century Holland with Ellie in 1950s New York, and see that both had similar struggles as female artists competing with their male counterparts. Both women felt equally real, as did their atmospheric settings. I did feel a bit let down by the third setting in Australia – the ending was a little rushed, and not quite as immersive and believable as the rest. However, overall, this novel was just as much a masterpiece as the painting it describes.
I received this novel from Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.