The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I’ve been wondering if ‘art-thriller’ is a genre… I’m thinking books such as What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and my latest read, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. Why does the art world make such a good backdrop for fiction? Perhaps because it involves creativity, big personalities, money, glamour, sacrifice and poverty? Or maybe I’m over-thinking it and creating tenuous links between these books…?

A rare painting, titled ‘At the Edge of the Wood’, provides the link between three separate places, times and characters in this tightly told cat-and-mouse story. The painting is by Sara de Vos, a Dutch artist of the Golden Age and the first woman to be accepted as a Master painter into the Guild. Fast forward to New York in the late fifties, when the painting hangs on millionaire Marty de Groot’s bedroom wall. Meanwhile, struggling Australian doctorate student, Ellie Shipley, is living in Brooklyn and making ends meet by doing art restoration work…and a forgery. Smith brings the story to the present day where, at an art exhibition in Sydney, the pasts of Sara, Marty and Ellie collide.

Firstly, this is an engrossing book. Subplots in each character’s story, the shifting places and times, and Smith’s smooth style add up to entertaining reading. While the descriptions of places didn’t evoke a strong reaction from me, I found the meticulously researched sections about art restoration and forgeries, fascinating –

“She also remembers the way she mishandled the bright yellows… In the late 1950s, very few in the conversation world knew about lead-tin yellow, a pigment favored by Dutch Masters that produces metallic soaps over time. To capture the bright, gritty texture, she’d mixed sand with synthetic chrome yellow, a mistake that has weighed on her ever since… A kind of technical remorse.”

Equally good were the parallels between the characters of Sara and Ellie – one living in the 17th century and struggling for recognition in the male dominated world of art and commerce; the other living in the 21st century, with much the same lot.

So where did the book lose marks? The writing lacked passion – given the topic, I expected something more emotive, something with more front. I was never fully engaged with any of the characters – none of them pulled the heartstrings (a shame because, without spoilers, there was plenty of opportunity).

3/5 Entertaining.

“He takes a big sip of his Tom Collins to wash away the aftertaste of deceit.”


As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and the Melburnian winter – the results for the day I finished this book (August 9): Belfast 12°-16°, Melbourne 11°-18°.

13 responses

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  2. I’ve built my blog around tenuous links between books – carry on, I say 😉 I may well steal ‘art thriller’ as a theme…

    This sounds hugely ambitious – maybe the writer took on too much?

    • Good, I’ll keep going (although honestly, your links never feel tenuous…).

      Although this book sounds like it was doing a lot, it didn’t read that way. It was easy to follow and it didn’t have plot weak spots. I guess I like books that are more beautifully written, with more feels. That said, I have recommended this book to lots of friends who I know will love it (also perfect beach read because lots happens).

  3. This is a fabulous question and one I’ve wondered about! I’ve read so many wonderful books that were art-thriller, several of which you mentioned! I also loved The Tsar of Love and Techno and The Improbability of Love- both which were about paintings.

    This was another winner for me. I thought Smith’s depiction of just how hard life could be as a woman, much less an artist, was marvelous.

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