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book review

Saga of theft, loss, and restoration in ‘The Last Painting’

Winter landscape on a foggy day with a row of bare trees and a curved ditch.

Shutterstock

Plotting their heist of the painting, the thieves choose their forger well. Young and scholarly, clever with a brush, and passionately meticulous, she crafts a beguiling fake. So when they pluck Sara de Vos’s “At the Edge of a Wood” from the wall of a Manhattan penthouse, it’s a long while before anyone realizes the canvas they’ve left in its place is not the real thing.

For Marty de Groot, a middle-aged patent lawyer whose ancestor Pieter bought the painting new in 1637, this is something of an embarrassment. The de Vos has hung above his bed, for goodness sake, and he’s known it all his life. As Marty tells a museum director: “This painting has been in my family since before Isaac Newton was born.”

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When he finally does notice something’s amiss, it’s the frame that gives it away. The landscape itself, by one Ellie Shipley of Brooklyn, a Columbia University doctoral candidate in art history with a sideline in restoration, still looks real enough to him.

Restoration of various kinds figures heavily in the lives of all three principals — Sara, Ellie, and Marty — in Dominic Smith’s glorious new novel, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” which hops from New York to the Netherlands to Sydney as it glides among three very different eras, each richly evoked: the 1600s; the late 1950s, when the painting is copied and stolen; and 2000, when a reckoning finally arrives.

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Now, if you are a person who falls into a deep slumber at the merest mention of the Dutch Golden Age, you may be thinking this is a book you’d be better off skipping. If, in recent years, you have resisted all pressure to add “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Goldfinch” to your must-read list — or if you feel you’ve met your quota on fiction involving artists who might have crossed paths with Rembrandt at the guild hall — you could be tempted to bypass this one.

Resist that impulse. Written in prose so clear that we absorb its images as if by mind meld, “The Last Painting” is gorgeous storytelling: wry, playful, and utterly alive, with an almost tactile awareness of the emotional contours of the human heart. Vividly detailed, acutely sensitive to stratifications of gender and class, it’s fiction that keeps you up at night — first because you’re barreling through the book, then because you’ve slowed your pace to a crawl, savoring the suspense.

At the time of the theft, “At the Edge of a Wood” is the sole work attributed to Sara de Vos, a fictional character Smith (”Bright and Distant Shores”) based partly on the real Sarah van Baalbergen, an artist of the same era. As a painting by a 17th-century woman, the de Vos is a rarity, even more so because it’s a landscape. On canvas, the wide world was the province of men. Women, if they painted, were expected to stay indoors and stick to still lifes.

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“At the Edge of a Wood” is a winter scene, a ghostly painting that Sara composes in secret — “She’s supposed to be painting tulips” — and in mourning, after the death of her only child, Kathrijn, from the plague. The work on it is a necessary salve for Sara, who tries tenderly to cheer her husband in his grief. When he disappears, leaving her to pay off his heavy debts, Sara’s brush is her means to rebuild her life.

Ellie’s brush, misapplied, nearly ruins hers. An art dealer commissions her to copy “At the Edge of a Wood,” claiming it’s a legitimate job. An Australian cultivating her little patch of academia with a dissertation on Dutch women painters of the 17th century, Ellie knows better and does it anyway — not for the money, but for the love of de Vos’s work. Also, she later thinks, out of anger at a world that minimized her just as it did de Vos, because they were not men. The forgery becomes a regret, heavy and crippling, that she will carry with her always.

Marty, a restless, entitled charmer with a vast cushion of wealth, is actually relieved at first that the painting is gone. His marriage, sad and drifting after a couple of miscarriages, seems to brighten; even his parking karma improves. The theft comes to make him angry, though, and this is a book concerned partly with the enormous cruelties people are capable of inflicting when their goal — which for Marty is revenge — seems to justify doing whatever it takes. He hires a comical slob of a detective, who traces the forgery to Ellie. Marty engineers a meeting with her, harming both her and himself in the process.

But as much as “The Last Painting” is about deceit and bad behavior, it’s also about tending to the canvas of a life: stripping away layers of accumulated grime, repairing the damaged patches, and heeding the shading effects of time, the merciful way it can bring out different colors.

THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS

By Dominic Smith

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

304 pp., $26

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura. collinshughes@gmail.com.
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