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Book Reflections – The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I first remember becoming familiar with painting in l7th century Holland in Girl with a Pearl Earring (about the famous painter Vermeer) then less about painting but about a similar time and place the captivating The Miniaturist. I didn’t expect to read again about painting at that time but for book group this month I had the great pleasure of reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. It’s a cracker of a book! It gripped me from the beginning. I was torn between the desire to read on and on to find out what happened next or slow down and savour the writing.

Smith skillfully steers the reader from 17th century Holland to 1950s New York, USA to the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia.

In Holland we follow the tumultuous life of the painter Sara de Vos, who was exceptional in being admitted to the Guild for painters in Holland, despite being a woman.

In New York city we follow two storylines, that of a young Australian art historian named Ellie who is studying for her PhD on Dutch and Flemish female painters of the 17th century and patent attorney Marty de Groot.

Ellie painstakingly performs restorations of paintings in her spare time, largely for the pleasure rather than the money. She learned to master the old techniques of rendering down animal hides and grinding lead or azurite to create pigments. After restoring many paintings her agent brings her the photographs of an exquisite painting by Sara de Vos and tells her that the owner wants a copy made, probably so that he can keep the original in safe storage while displaying the fake. Ellie devotes months to creating an excellent copy of the painting.

Marty inherited a 3-storey penthouse apartment in an excellent location in Manhattan and many paintings by Dutch masters, including the Sara de Vos painting. He and his wife have been unable to have children, his wife is depressed, he’s unable to get promoted into a partnership at his law firm and he’s considering having an affair when his de Vos is stolen.

I won’t give away anything more but I’m confident that you’ll love reading about Sara’s, Ellie’s and Marty’s lives on 3 continents. In the same way that Orhan Pamuk convinced me with his intricate details about miniaturist painting in the Ottoman court in I am Red, Smith convinced me with the intricate details of preparing a canvas and pigments for 17th century painting in the Netherlands.

I often reflect on my failings and wonder why I sometimes behave in an emotionally stunted way. I watch my children grow and blossom and I worry that they will grow apart from me to the extent that I will not be included in their adult lives. My throat clenches at the thought of it. Taking the expatriate assignment to Norway helped me to slow down and connect with my children and the disintegration of my successful career (for unrelated reasons) has helped enormously to allow me to gain a position of trust with my pubescent daughter. I went so close to missing out on that connection! This quote from Marty in his 80s captures my fears

You live among the ruins of the past, carry them in your pockets, wishing you’d been decent and loving and talented and brave. Instead you were vain and selfish, capable of love but always giving less than everything you had. You held back.

This review in the New York Times contains a comprehensive plot summary and this review in the Australian provides an actual review of the writing style.

2 comments on “Book Reflections – The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

  1. Anna
    June 2, 2018

    Oh I’ve seen this book on the shelves but haven’t bitten the bullet yet. I definitely will now as I loved Girl with a pearl earring and adored The Miniaturist!

    • strivetoengage
      June 2, 2018


      It’s also thrilling that the modern part of the book is set in Sydney

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