Longlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
In the 1600s Sara de Vos loses her young daughter suddenly to illness. In her grief, she secretly begins painting a dark landscape of a girl watching a group of ice skaters from the edge of a wood.
In 1950s New York, Martijn de Groot has At the Edge of a Wood hanging above his bed. Though it is a dark, peculiar painting, he holds it dear and when it is stolen, he is bereft. In Brooklyn, struggling art student Ellie Shipley accepts a commission to paint an intricate forgery of the painting, not realising that her decision will come to haunt her successful academic career.
Gorgeously written, brilliantly conceived and executed, filled with tension and revelation, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is one of those rare books that stops time as you read it. This is a novel you will want to revisit for the sheer pleasure of watching a master at work.
Smith's (Bright and Distant Shores) novel centers on two women who live hundreds of years apart yet are inextricably linked. When Dutch artists Barent and Sara de Vos lose their daughter to the plague in 1635, the couple falls into emotional and financial decline. Despite misfortune and the rules of her guild (women don't do landscapes), Sara completes At the Edge of a Wood, a haunting winter scene. By 1958, wealthy New Yorker Marty de Groot has inherited the painting, but after a charity event in his Upper East Side apartment, he discovers it's been replaced with a forgery. Marty's search for the original leads him to Brooklyn and Ellie Shipley, grad student and first-time forger. Years later, Marty and Ellie meet again in Sydney, where Ellie's academic life is threatened by the prospect of Marty's original and her fake appearing at the same exhibition. As in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the technical process and ineffable aspects of creating a masterpiece enrich this novel, but Smith had to invent his masterpieces because no works survive by the real-life Sarah van Baalbergen, who was the first woman admitted to the Guild of St. Luke. Smith's paintings, like his settings, come alive through detail: the Gowanus Expressway, ruins of an old Dutch village, two women from different times and places both able to capture on canvas simultaneous beauty and sadness.