In a time when cultural product is able to be delivered instantaneously almost anywhere in the world, it’s tempting to think the tyranny of distance is history. Yet when it comes to literature it’s not that simple, as the career of Dominic Smith attests. Raised in Sydney, Smith left Australia for the US at the age of 18 and, except for a brief stint in the 1990s, has lived there ever since. Yet despite publishing three critically acclaimed novels and receiving many accolades in his adopted home, his profile in Australia remains surprisingly low.
That seems set to change with the publication of Smith’s fourth novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, an elegant yet gripping historical drama about the nature of art and loss and love set in 17th-century Holland, 1950s New York and 21st-century Sydney, which is already receiving rave reviews here and overseas.
As the novel opens it is 1957 and lawyer Marty de Groot and his wife, Rachel, are preparing for a party in their Upper East Side home. The soiree is a fundraiser for the Aid Society, an event Marty and Rachel have hosted annually for a decade, usually without anything more significant happening than Manhattan grandees wildly overspending on “opera tickets, fountain pens and subscriptions for Yachting magazine” in the charity auction.
This year is different, however. For while the business of the party unfolds on the terrace and in the dining room, thieves slip into Marty and Rachel’s bedroom, remove the painting that hangs above their bed and replace it with a fake.
The stolen painting, known as At the Edge of the Wood and depicting a girl standing behind a tree watching a group of skaters, is exceptional not just because it has been in Marty’s family for more than three centuries, but because it is one of the few surviving works by elusive Dutch artist Sara de Vos, a figure known — inasmuch as she is known — for a handful of still lifes and for being one of the few women to have been admitted to Haarlem’s powerful painters’ organisation, the Guild of St Luke.
Yet the true significance of At the Edge of the Wood lies not in its provenance but in the painting itself, which is “no village frolic before the onrush of night” but something “unlike anything else painted by a baroque woman … a winter landscape with the glaucous atmosphere of [a work by Dutch painter Hendrick] Avercamp, the delicate grays and blues and russets, the peasants skating through the ether of twilight above the ice”, the “stark and forlorn figure” of the girl, “the onlooker but also the focal point, the center of gravity … trapped by the eternity of dusk”.
This extraordinary stillness and intensity has long since worked its magic on Marty and, as it happens, on Ellie Shipley, the struggling student hired to produce a copy of the painting by the people behind its eventual theft, and whose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos By Dominic Smith Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $32.99