'So much of the forger's dominion is theater and subtext...a series of enticements. An obscure provenance, suggested by visual cues, is irresistible to a certain kind of buyer - it becomes a story of self-discernment, of plucking a second self from the folds of history.'
Has anyone watched that TV programme Fake or Fortune, where Fiona Bruce and art expert Philip Mould endeavour to solve the mysteries and provenance of paintings that may (or may not) be the lost work of a famous artist. The stakes are high and things get incredibly tense for everyone, investigators and owners alike, towards the denouement, because obviously there's a big difference between £50 and £5,000,000. I was reminded of this and much else as I read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (Atlantic Books) and the world that surrounds a famous painting.
It is 1957 and At the Edge of a Wood (1636), an oil on canvas measuring 30" x 24" by Dutch artist Sara de Vos, hangs above the bed of wealthy New York businessman Marty de Groot and his wife Rachel, in their plush penthouse. When artist Ellie Shipley is commissioned by an art dealer to create a replica of the painting, a forgery, she can have little idea of where this duplicity will lead, and it will be many years later and in a different country (2000,Sidney Australia) that the deceit will finally unravel. Now in her sixties, a successful and renowned artist and art historian and the curator of an exhibition on seventeenth century Dutch women painters, Ellie awaits the arrival of At the Edge of the Wood with some trepidation. A small private collection in the Netherlands has purchased the painting recently and agreed to its loan; Ellie does not need to hear her boss unwittingly announce that he has arranged for the loan of At the Edge of the Wood from a private collector in New York who will be delivering the painting in person.
Oh what a tangled web we weave and little know it might still be there to ensnare so many years hence.
Cleverly apportioning his narrative between 1957 and 2000, Dominic Smith also adds in a strand from 1636 as Dutch artist Barent de Vos and his wife Sara struggle to make ends meet under the auspices of the rigid and controlling art guilds of the day in Amsterdam, and to a backdrop of tulipomania and its demise.
'Poverty appeared first in their meals, then in their shoes, and finally in their thoughts and prayers...'
And it all came back to me...
I had done three years of Open University literature courses in the late 1990s and had opted for an art history year on the premise that a nice year of looking would be a rest from all the reading. In truth I knew so little about art I ended up having to read twice as much, and I discovered as much on Week One and that first tutorial when we were asked to name three famous pre-twentieth century women artists...
Cue silence and not just from me.
Dominic Smith subtly interrogates the status of the women artists in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. More often than not the women were working as assistants to the men, less important and stifled by the constraints of the still-life genre, attendance at life-drwaing classes forbidden, anything else considered inappropriate or too demanding, and I am then reminded of the the paintings of Angelica Kaufmann displayed at Saltram House in Plymouth.
It all begs the question too... how many paintings attributed to men might have been painted by women, a possibility that Dominic Smith explores in the seventeenth century as well as in the twentieth. Three hundred years later but Ellie's painstaking work, commissioned by a man, yet for all its perfections will never be recognised as being painted by a woman.
The hook in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos comes with the playing out of the action in 2000 before a full account of the 1950's action becomes apparent. There are hints of 'old scalding regret' which create a page-turning intrigue but there is something else too..
Unlike say The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, (remember how much some us loved that and some loathed it) or Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, (likewise, the love/loath divide) there is no picture to refer to. The first thing I did when I started reading The Goldfinch was to print out the painting by Carel Fabritius and use it as a bookmark, a visual reference. At the Edge of a Wood is art as a fiction, if a painting can be such a thing, it has to be a figment of a reader's imagination, the author has to paint it for them. Initial frustrations turned to a strange sort of pleasure that this picture was mine, and mine alone to see, because every reader will be in possession of their own version...
'A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a sliver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold, flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice...'
Please God, if anyone decided to paint At the Edge of a Wood I really don't want to see it.
With its themes of deception and regret, retribution and forgiveness and all steeped in the art world, I emerged from The Last Painting of Sara de Vos with the names of more women artists to discover ( Maria van Oosterwyck, Rachel Ruysch) and a renewed reverence for their work and their talent, as well as that feeling that I had just read a really good book.
If you have read this book I would, as always love to know your thoughts...
And apart from those already mentioned are there any other art-fiction books like this to be recommended..
I sowed teasels in our garden after reading The Goldfinch, this in an effort to lure them past the cat and back into our garden and they have been a huge success. we now regularly have nesting pairs and babies in the apple trees.
And do you have a favourite among the women artists...