by Vincent Cuddihy
At the edge of the wood is the title of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (2016), the fourth novel by Australian-born writer Dominic Smith. Smith, who now lives and teaches in the US, has received some critical acclaim for this work about the world of art in both the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. It was long listed for an American Library Association Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence and was also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
Smith moves along three tracks in this story. There is the history of Sara de Vos in Amsterdam during the 1630s. She is presented as the first woman to be inducted into the Guilds of St. Luke, the organization that controlled all aspects of professional artistic life. Sara de Vos is Smith’s fictional creation: her life is a composite of events that occurred in the lives of the twenty-five women who were members of the Guild. Very little of their work has survived to the present time, or else it has survived under another artist’s name. Unscrupulous art dealers of the day would often pass off paintings by women artists as the work of better known male artists in an effort to get a higher price for the product.
The other two tracks are set in New York in the late 1950s and in Sydney in 2000. In New York we meet Ellie Shipley, a graduate student in Art History at Columbia University who is from Australia and short of cash. She lets herself be persuaded to produce a copy of At the Edge of a Wood by an art thief who substitutes it for the original in the home of the owner, Marty de Groot, a prominent patent attorney. He is descended from one of the early Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam whose family has had the painting in its possession for over three hundred years.
By 2000, Ellie is a distinguished academic at a university in Sydney. She is mounting an exhibition of paintings on female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Homing in on her and her career are both versions of At the Edge of a Wood, one of which is going to be proven a fake. And when it is, its origins will unmask her early career as a forger and put an end to her present distinguished status.
Sara does not enjoy a happy life. We first meet her in the Spring of 1636 shortly after her only child, Kathrijn, has died of what is suspected to be the plague. Her husband, Barent, is also an artist. The death of their only child leads him to bury his sorrow in his work, while Sara stops painting altogether.
They become casualties of the collapse of the tulip bubble the following winter. Tulips, which had been introduced into Europe from Turkey late in the previous century, had become a highly prized novelty and the bulbs had become the subject of much speculation. But the plague had led many people to walk away from their contracts and prices suddenly collapsed. Sara and Barent find that people who will no longer pay for the actual tulips are even less inclined to pay for paintings of these flowers.
Barent cannot pay what he owes for the supplies he has purchased on credit. Rather than face debtor’s prison, he leaves the country, never to be heard from again. Sara is rescued by a businessman who buys up Barent’s debt and takes her to his estate on the understanding that she will work for him for a year to pay off the debt.
Marty de Groot has discovered the theft of his prized possession because of a difference in the frame. On the advice of a partner, he has engaged detective Red Hammond to investigate his loss. His encounters with Hammond provide some of the comic highlights of the novel; even by New Jersey standards, Hammond is an odd duck. But his eccentric methods prove successful and he is able to provide Marty with an address in Brooklyn. When Marty makes his own enquiries, he discovers a lonely and vulnerable young woman. He decides to repay the fraud that has been perpetrated on him with a fraud of his own.
I really enjoyed this book. Smith takes small episodes and draws you into them so grippingly that you get a strong sense of the atmosphere of the event. You feel you are right in the place and the time that he is describing and the image sticks with you long after you have finished the story.