A masterful new story charts the circuitous course of the sole surviving work of a female Dutch painter. This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can't shake them, even long after the audio's done. In his award-winning earlier novels, Dominic Smith demonstrated a gift for coaxing the past to life. Now, in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, he deftly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth. In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke's in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain - a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she's curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present. This audiobook includes a reading group guide read by the author.
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Though it might be an obvious maneuver to compare this book about a piece of art to standing in front of an actual masterpiece and observing its brilliance and story come alive, Dominic Smith has written a book that reveals itself similarly, if you'll pardon the analogy. In this elegantly constructed story about history, beauty, loss, and morality, Smith layers each element as meticulously as a master craftsman -- the stroke of the brush, the stroke of the pen -- bringing history alive and present in an intrigue of forgery (on many levels), revenge and revelation. His talent and intelligence are reflected in dazzling atmospheres, detailed histories, and the arc of three intertwining worlds inhabited by perfectly nuanced characters.
The 17th century painting , "At the Edge of a Wood" is privately owned, passed down through 300 years as part of the fortune of the de Groot's of Amsterdam, where it now hangs above the Park Avenue "marital bed" of one Martin de Groot and his wife Rachel. An affected lawyer with generations of bequeathed wealth, the painting holds more than just monetary value to Marty. Beyond it's beauty, he sees in its provenance the generations of de Groot's that suffered from "gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness and stroke," and early death that began after Pieter de Groot purchased the painting at an auction by the Delft Guild of St. Luke in 1637, to benefit the “Chamber of Orphans”. The artist, Sara de Vos, was the first woman allowed to be a member of the prestigious guild which counted among its members Rembrandt and Vermeer. But for Marty, the painting is equally a reminder of his wife's own inability to conceive over the many years, his stagnate job, his own health, in a life too used to the comforts and luxuries of money.
In an ironic twist that seems to bear out the painting's curse, the art is stolen from the couple's apartment while they are hosting a benefit dinner for... the orphans’ aid society. The theft is not realized until several months later. Marty uncovering the forgery also has an epiphany--since the theft he and his wife's lives have improved exponentially. From this point of realization, the narratives expand and move through history, seeming effortlessly in their complexities in Smith's hands, intersecting the people effected by the painting, from 17th century Amsterdam and finally to Australia in 2000. Marty reluctantly pursues the return of his heirloom, and in his own effete manner, echoes the subject of another cursed painting he once compared to his own -- that of the dark-souled Dorian Gray.
Some of Smith's observations of art and artists were staggeringly powerful and passionate. When he is describing how the skillful forger (a young Australian - Ellie Shipley) painstakingly studies the painting for days, each stroke, each layer of color, the canvas and lacquer, the dust and mold of centuries -- but even the most talented forger can't paint the soul of the artist that makes it onto the canvas: “Only the real artist has the false beginning.” It is magic you feel when the two paintings (real and faked) meet and a heartbreaking fact is revealed about the authentic masterpiece. The characters are distinct and dimensional. Marty, as boorish as he needs to be, eventually redeems himself; Ellie evolves through the deceit that has haunted her for most of her life; and the tragedy of de Vors' life that has been swathed in a cloud of mystery for centuries, reveals a new legacy.
Comparable to The Goldfinch, The Girl with a Pearl Earring. Highly recommend.
As an avid reader and Audible listener, I feel like I have to"kiss a lot of frogs" before I find that special one... I couldn't quit listening to this book! It's been some time since I've been this impressed. The story was captivating and the writing exceptional. I can't wait to tell my friends about it.