I got completely lost in the detail while reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Sara de Vos is the first Dutch woman painter in the Dutch golden age. Her painting, called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is considered the last known painting of Sara de Vos and has been owned by Marty de Groot’s family for over three centuries.
The story pans over two centuries, in which we explore Sara’s life in the 17th century. As an artist, the only way she could paint or sell her paintings was to be admitted to the Guild of St Luke in Holland, but as a female painter she also had other restrictions put on her – the fact that women couldn’t paint landscapes as they weren’t allowed to be outside. However, ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is a landscape painting. The painting itself is a dark and somber picture which was hugely inspired by the loss of her daughter and captures her grief.
In 1958, a struggling art student called Ellie Shipley was commissioned to forge At the Edge of a Wood. Against all better judgement, she masterfully forged Sara’s painting. Marty, the current owner seems to believe that the painting has cursed his family for centuries and has come to this conclusion when the painting was stolen from his house in 1958 and replaced with the forgery. Despite this, Marty is still convinced to find out who forged and stole his painting.
The novel focuses on art and explores the technicalities of forgery and painting. Art is a topic that I’m currently exploring with great enthusiasm, however not knowing much about 17th century art, apart from the names ‘Rembrandt’ and ‘Vermeer’ being particularly familiar, it was a delight to read more about this era in the art industry. I loved the references to the impressionists’ era and particularly Caravaggio (a 16th century Italian painter, who was my subject of interest for the last few months).
Not only does it have a huge emphasis on art, but the characters are also well fleshed out. You find yourself being interested in their story and in their lives. Sara lost her daughter to the plague, which was an unfortunate reality in those times, as were her circumstances.
“Poverty appeared first in their meals, then in their shoes, and finally in their thoughts and prayers”. Poverty stricken, Sara had to not only deal with the loss of her daughter, but also her husband who left her when the circumstances proved too much for him. In those days, a woman were liable for the debt of her husband, an added strain on top of her grief and the betrayal by her estranged husband.
Fast forward to the 21st century, Ellie is a successful art professor and a (published) art historian on 17th century Dutch art. Also the curator of an art exhibition on the former topic, she finds her career threatened when both paintings (the original and her forgery) are en route to the art gallery in Australia for the exhibition.
The time it took me to read the book, has no bearing on how much I enjoyed the novel. I skipped days in between, but when I did pick it up, I read huge chunks of the book in one go. It’s a mystery that captivates the reader and I found myself thoroughly invested in the life of Sara de Vos, feeling her pain and suffering, but also the fears and frustrations of Ellie and of course, completely immersed in the detail of art. There aren’t too much detail on the latter, so if it’s not a topic of interest to you, there are a lot more the book has to offer to keep you turning the pages: (lost) love, betrayal, suffering and new beginnings.