Dominic Smith has a habit of getting sucked into worlds much different than his own. Has last book, Bright and Distant Shores, was set in 1890s Chicago. In The Beautiful Miscellaneous, Smith immersed himself in the world of particle physics.
From his home in Austin, Texas, Australia-born Smith talks abouthis latest novel,The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, and how he managed to connect three very different worlds together: Amsterdam in the 17th century, New York in the 1950s, and Sydney, Australia, in the year 2000. “I try to find a story that feels like it belongs there,” he says. And before this story belonged to three different times and places, it belonged first to Amsterdam and an idea that formed when Smith was living there.
While in Amsterdam, he became interested in the golden age of Dutch painting. “Like a lot of art lovers, I thought I knew what the Dutch paintings looked like. But what I really knew were the Vermeers and Rembrandts,” Smith admits. “What I discovered and what stayed with me ever since then is that there are all these missing layers of the 17th century Dutch golden age…particularly when it comes to women painters.”
Smith was inspired by the female members of the Guild of St. Luke, a highly influential part of the golden age. Or, really, he was inspired to understand why, despite there being about 25 female members, we only have a small handful of paintings from some of these women. “Like Judith Leyster, for example, who has some 35 paintings, but for over 200 years…her paintings were attributed to either her husband or to Frans Hals,” he says. “What I think of as the gaps and the silences in art history…is what fermented the idea for the book.”
The character at the heart of this novel, Sara de Vos, “came out of this gaping hole in our knowledge of what we know about women painters during this time period,” Smith reveals. She is not based on any one person, but is a tribute to all of the female members of the Guild of St. Luke, and an attempt at reconciling the missing history surrounding their lives and careers.
In the novel, Sara de Vos begins work on a landscape painting, a chilling winter scene, during a time of great personal tragedy. In the 1600s, this medium was usually reserved for men, but in this moment of Sara’s life, “painting a still life suddenly seemed unimaginable.” It is this painting, titled At the Edge of the Wood—and the eventual forging of it, centuries later—that drives the narrative and serves as the connector between the 17th century and modern day.
Smith says that the gaps in art history are what drove him to write this novel, and the idea is reflected throughout the book, most fully in the character of Ellie Shipley, a talented restorer working in 1950s New York. Usually commissioned to bring old paintings back to life, the reclusive student is propositioned with the opportunity to duplicate At the Edge of the Wood, a painting Ellie has long admired from afar.
Ellie knows in her core that this painting has been stolen (right off the wall of wealthy Marty de Groot, who’s had this painting in his family for centuries). And she knows this means her job would be to forge the work. But this is the best opportunity she will ever have to intimately connect with de Vos—and she can’t pass it up. “She does it out of love. She does it out of this technical passion for her field and she deludes herself into it,” Smith says.
“She did a lot of pacing that first week, letting the rationalizations tick over in her mind while she walked barefoot through the equatorial climate of her apartment,” Smith writes. And by the end of the paragraph, Ellie has made her decision: “the work had begun.”
To have Ellie’s forgery techniques in the book be as authentic as possible, Smith corresponded with Ken Perenyi, author of Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger. Perenyi “sold paintings of different eras at the best auction houses for many decades and made a lot of money…the FBI was always trying to catch him.” Smith read Perenyi’s memoir and became captivated by his process. He started corresponding with Perenyi and had him “authenticate this forgery that my fictitious character was creating inside this fictional world…he was completely willing to do that.”
A big takeaway from reading Perenyi is that a “key part of forgery is narrative and storytelling.” When Ellie boils rabbit pelts in her Brooklyn apartment for glue, or goes in search for a frame as old as the original painting, she is committing to the story of her painting, creating a full history for it. This notion of forgery as storytelling is a rich theme of Smith’s novel. He admits that forgery goes well beyond the painting itself: “in the novel, there are really two forgeries; the actual painting forgery and the moral forgery,” Smith says.
Ellie’s rationalization to take on this project is the most obvious moral forgery, and it deeply affects the rest of her life. But it’s not the only moral deceit occurring in this book: Marty de Groot, the owner of the original de Vos painting, commits forgeries of morality and character as he seeks to avenge his stolen property. Ellie and Marty’s lives become ever more connected, and the forgery deepens until it can no longer be contained.
This book questions the notions “of authenticity and the fake and why we take those things so personally,” Smith says. The forgery threatens to ruin entire lives, giving it a surprising amount of power. But Smith ends our conversation with a reminder: “when you’re forging something, you’re copying the finished effect. But what you don’t know, for example, is that Sara de Vos had created a different kind of under layer. And that’s what you can’t fully capture is the process, the false starts.”
The illusion of the forgery is a powerful one, but it can’t win a battle with the truth.
Chelsea Langford lives and writes in New York City.