The artist at the center of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith, is based on a real woman—Sara van Baalbergen, the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke. Like her inspiration, Sara de Vos left little trace of her existence part from less than a handful of paintings. Part of this book reveals more about the artist’s life; the rest revolves around two periods in the life of an academic and art restorer. As the novel switches back and forth between the two protagonists, the narrative meditates on the genuine and the fake, honesty and deception.
Sara de Vos in 1637 has recently lost her daughter to plague and is in the process of losing her husband to debt. Both are members of the St. Luke Guild of artists but, unbeknownst to anyone else, Sara is the real talent. For a while, her work keeps them afloat. We see her struggle against her husband’s failures and against a guild that is much more interested in money than in artistic vision.
In 1957, Ellie Shipley is making ends meet as an art restorer. She’s technically a graduate student working on a dissertation about Dutch women painters of the seventeenth century, but she gets more out of her work with old paintings than she does out of the books about their creators. Out of the blue, one of the men who brings her restoration jobs arrives with a set of photos and an unethical request. He wants Ellie to copy the only known painting by Sara de Vos. She takes the job, more out of curiosity than anything else.
In 2000, Ellie Shipley helps set up an exhibition of seventeenth century Dutch women painters in Sydney. Everything is going swimmingly, until two copies of Sara de Vos’s best known work. One came from a museum in Leiden. The other belongs to the man who owned the original back in 1957. This man, Martijn de Groet, holds the key to ruining Ellie. He knows that she painted the forgery all those years ago.
Each shift in the narrative reveals more about Sara, Ellie, and Marty. Sara’s story has the most honesty to it. She wants to paint and she finds a way to do it, eventually, under her own known. Ellie and Marty are not so genuine, but their deceptions are not completely malicious. And this is the problem with The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: the tension never reaches mystery or thriller levels and the stakes never get all that high. I kept waiting for something to happen, but it turns out this isn’t that kind of book. I’m not sure what it wants to be because there’s a little too much going on here to do any of it really well.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 April 2016.