Whenever I gravitate to a painting in a museum, I always read the accompanying placard. And yet, so often these little labels tend to run only a few lines long: title of work; name of artist; date of birth, death. No rich description of what you see.
Curators around the world would do well to hire Dominic Smith to craft those gallery signs (though I suspect Smith may not need the side gig). Splashed across the entire first page of his riveting book, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” is the plaque for the fictional painting that dominates his narrative:
At the Edge of a Wood (1636)
Oil on canvas
30’’ x 24”
Sara de Vos
A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. . . . Her eyes are fixed on some distant point — but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank.
Once Smith has crystallized that painting in our minds, his actual story begins on the next page. It’s 1957, and 40-year-old patent attorney Marty de Groot and his wife are hosting a $500-a-plate charity event at their Upper East Side triplex. Above the couple’s marital bed hangs “At the Edge of a Wood,” first purchased by one of his Dutch ancestors three centuries earlier. The piece is like an albatross: No de Groot who has ever owned it has lived past the age of 60.
Still, de Groot values his family heirloom. In Smith’s invented world, “At the Edge of a Wood” is supposedly the only surviving painting of de Vos, a painter with status: She’s the first woman inducted as a master into the Guild of St. Luke in Holland, a once-powerful governing body that determined how much painters got paid and included Rembrandt and Vermeer, according to the author’s note at the beginning of the book.
Even though de Groot is one of those New York patricians living off inherited wealth in a prewar penthouse with views of Central Park, we still root for him. He’s the victim of a crime. At the time of his charity party, he has no clue that his prized painting had actually been stolen at some point earlier and replaced with a “forgery hanging in plain sight.”
It’s only six months after the party that de Groot happens to notice something’s off: The painting has a new frame. And the canvas is dirtier than normal. He hires a private investigator, and the narrative is off and running. Who stole “At the Edge of a Wood” and replaced it with a fake? The naive lawyer is so ashamed by the theft that he tells colleagues that the perpetrators must have been men disguised as caterers at his charity event.
The genius of Smith’s book is not just the caper plot but also the interweaving of three alternating timelines and locations to tell a wider, suspenseful story of one painting’s rippling impact on three people over multiple centuries and locations.
Each chapter switches up the time and geography: In one chapter, you’re in 1950s New York, watching de Groot track down the forger; the next, you’re in mid-17th century Holland, where we meet de Vos and understand her tragic life and how she came to paint “At the Edge of a Wood”; and then in other chapters, you zoom forward to 2000, when Marty and the forger meet in Australia.
Smith clearly immersed himself in the world of Dutch masters and the subculture of forgers, too. His descriptions are beautifully precise and reveal the vast research required to write so originally in the well-trodden genre of art mystery.
He also captures the fascinating mind-set of the forger with such thoughtfulness: “So much of the forger’s dominion is theater and subtext,” he writes, “a series of enticements. An obscure provenance, suggested by visual cues, is irresistible to a certain kind of buyer — it becomes a story of their own discernment, of plucking a second self from the folds of history.”
But the novel’s most gripping parts exist in 17th-century Holland and the telling of de Vos’s life. Who was the little girl watching the frozen river in “At the Edge of a Wood”? And was this piece truly “the last painting” of Sara de Vos?
Smith’s book absorbs you from the start. But its real fuel comes from the anguish of his titular character and, three centuries later, the burdens felt by the inheritor and forger of her most famous work.
Ian Shapira is a Washington Post writer.
By Dominic Smith
Sarah Crichton. 290 pp. $26