The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
By Dominic Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
The Scientist and the Forger
By Jehane Ragai
Imperial College Press, 2015
Some books hook you so that, coming to the end, you try to prolong the experience, slowing down to inhale every last word. That’s how I felt when I read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
Set in three time periods and places, the mid-sixteen hundreds in Holland, the mid -nineteen fifties in New York, and in Sydney in 2000, the novel’s central figure is Sara de Vos, a (fictional) painter who worked in the Dutch Golden Age, the time and place of Vermeer and Rembrandt. One of her paintings is inherited by Martjin de Groot, a New York lawyer. Ellie Shipley, a struggling fine arts graduate student who supports herself by restoring paintings, agrees to copy the painting for a shady art dealer. So clever is her forgery, done entirely from photographs, that after the original painting is stolen and the forgery put in its place, de Groot does not realize it for some time. When he does, he tracks down the forger and exacts his revenge.
Last summer I lunched with Jehane Ragai, a professor of chemistry who has written a book on art forgery. The book, The Scientist and the Forger, shows how sophisticated – x-ray techniques and mass spectrometry can detect forgeries. Yet they continue. Jehane is fascinated by the mind of the forger. If someone is so highly skilled that they can execute a magnificent work of art, why would they not spend their energies on developing their own work? Jehane found in her research that money is not the main motivator. And in Dominic Smith’s novel the money is incidental. In fact, Shipley has trouble spending it.
As in all good novels, the motivation for this character’s actions is buried deep in her past. One of Smith’s themes is misogyny and its persistence over the centuries. If women artists were overlooked, even denied the opportunity to paint certain subjects in the seventeenth century, they still faced severe career obstacles in the twentieth. De Vos and Shipley are central figures in this book but Rachel de Groot, Marty’s wife, deliberately shown only peripherally, is another victim of society’s contempt for women who fail to bear children. This theme of inheritance and its loss, for children who died, for children not born, for children not even conceived, reverberates through the novel.
We imagine immortality through passing on our genes. But it is not the only way. Art, Dominic Smith shows us, survives blood lines. A painting, a physical object, can link us to another mind which lived long ago. Perhaps that is what really motivates the forger, the need to inhabit the brain of a true creator.
That’s left unspoken in this novel. But the writing soars in its sections on Sara de Vos. She is a more fully fleshed and understandable character than de Groot or Shipley. And it is in the descriptions of Sara’s paintings and their effect on the viewer that Smith’s writing is at its finest.
Recently, I heard Dominic Smith speak at a writers’ conference. I subsequently bought two of his books. I look forward to reading the next one – Bright and Distant Shores. This is a writer of prodigious gifts.