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.