The sidling glances of a world looking back
It’s late November 1957 in Brooklyn and Ellie Shipley stands before a painting few people have seen for perhaps a hundred years. She’s been hired to produce a copy—a shady deal she knows is shady—but she’s taken the job in order to study the painting. For Ellie, seeing is not the simple act of glance and reflection we all experience; seeing is bone-deep and personal.
She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty feet away—that will come later. What she wants is topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old.
The painting is the only known work of Sara de Vos, the first woman admitted into Holland’s prestigious Guild of St. Luke in 1631. It belongs to Marty de
Groot, a lawyer who lives in up and coming splendor on the Upper East Side. It’s been in his family for longer than anyone can remember and hangs over his bed. When it’s stolen, he hires a private investigator. It’s not the thieves themselves or the art dealers the detective manages to get a line on, it’s Ellie.
Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a historical novel and a mystery, as well as a reflection on seeing itself, in what we bring to our images of other people and to art. The story shifts from the life of de Vos in 17 th Century Holland to Ellie and Marty in 1957, then again in 2000. The movement back and forth in time is not simply a contemporary convention here but intrinsic to the ways we see art and what art means to us.
Sara de Vos lives with her husband Barent, also a painter, and her daughter Kathrijn in Amsterdam. Women were not landscape painters at the time and, in order to sell any painting legally, one had to be a member of the Guild. Sara’s admittance to the Guild, though humiliating in its own right, is a breakthrough, but personal tragedy upends her life and severely limits her ability to paint.
In 1957, Marty pursues a relationship with Ellie, impressing her at art auctions and with fancy dinners, never letting on he knows she forged his painting. The painting doesn’t mean the same thing to Marty as it means to Ellie. For Ellie, it’s a brilliant window into the world of a woman who lived over three hundred years before, for Marty it’s simply an object that was taken from him and he must have his revenge.
This is, in part, a story of how women negotiate the world, bearing the arbitrary power, humiliation, and occasional kindnesses, of men to make their way, and how they come to define that world for themselves. Smith creates strong and complex women who come to life most fully when they observe: the landscapes spread before them, the strokes of brush on canvas, their own pasts from the perspective of the present.
There’s a kind of delicate conversation in the book between Sara in 1631 and Ellie, as she studies Sara’s paintings. The reader is drawn into Sara’s inner landscape with a clarity she herself could have probably never articulated, but which is vibrant for Ellie in the composition, color, and brushwork of the piece before her. This movement between seer and seen, each pass adding more nuance and layer, is a fundamental theme of the book, present between each character.
You carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like graveside vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again.
When Marty and Ellie meet again in 2000, Marty is an old man, burdened by remorse. He’s come to Sydney mostly to meet Ellie again after 33 years and take in the show she’s curated, Women of the Dutch Golden Age. By this time, a second de Vos has been discovered and Marty wants to see it but has left his glasses in the hotel room. He asks Ellie to describe it. It’s her love of the first painting that brought any real value to it for him. It’s her gaze he revels in, as Ellie revels in the gaze of Sara de Vos.
Whether we’re looking at a painting or back over our own lives, it’s layers we see, combining to produce a singular image. It’s the layers of our lives intersecting with our chance encounters, the brushstrokes of those important to us overlying conversations with near strangers. We accrue our lives from the ground up, and presenting that process is the magic of Dominic Smith’s novel. !
STEVE MITCHELL likes sunsets, long walks on the beach, and quiet nights by a fire. His short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He’s coowner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC