Art Books

Fictional painting stands at center of time-traveling novel

A landscape painting of a barefoot girl standing next to a tree at dusk, looking out on a group of skaters on a frozen river below her, is the focal point of a novel that touches on themes of art, longing and loss by novelist Dominic Smith.

Smith, a native of Australia who now lives in Austin, Texas, was the featured speaker at the April 19 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort. His talk focused on his latest novel, “The Last Painting of Sara De Vos,” published by Sarah Crichton Books in 2016.

Smith’s ambitious novel offers readers a kind of time-traveling experience, as it is set in three different continents over a period of more than three centuries. It details a young woman artist in the Netherlands in the 17th century, whose work touches on the lives of two people in 1950s New York City and early 2000s Sydney, Australia.

The idea for the novel came to Smith, he said in an interview before his talk, out of his own experience wandering through art museums in Amsterdam 17 years ago, while he was working for an Internet startup and raising a young family. At the time, he took notes about what he called “the lost women painters of the Dutch Golden Age.”

Years later, when he was thinking about beginning his fourth novel, he went through the notes and hit on the idea of building the story around a fictional painting.

With that idea, he said, “I was off to the races. I knew how to write this book.”

The painting becomes a lens through which to view his three main characters: the painter Sara De Vos, art history student Ellie Shipley, and wealthy art collector and heir Marty de Groot.

Both the artist and the painting are Smith’s creations, although they are inspired by real-life women painters and works from the 17th century. But because women painters of the period did not typically paint landscapes for a variety of reasons, Smith had to draw on the work of male artists to craft his fictional painting.

“You want it to draw on a framework of historical fact. Within that, you’re going to find places to invent,” Smith said.

He wanted his fictional painting to be a landscape so it would “be haunting... so you could look at the painting and wonder who is the girl, why is she barefoot and what does it mean? It’s hard to do that with a vase full of tulips.”

In the novel, Smith offered this description of the painting, called “At the Edge of a Wood,” through the eyes of a businessman in Amsterdam in 1637, who stumbles across the work at an estate sale:

“The barefoot girl with her pale hand against the birch, leaning toward the skaters; the light on the horizon that is both serene and ominous. Looking at the painting makes Pieter think of those wintry afternoons when as a boy he waited for dusk to settle over the house and for the first tallow candles to be lit. His father would become quiet and speculative and tell stories about dead relatives. The smell of supper would kindle from the stewpot in the flames of the hearth. The painting contains all of this. It is about the moment before nightfall, about waiting to cross over.”

Another thread of the story concerns a forgery of the Sara de Vos painting. To achieve authenticity, Smith spent a full year reading about the Dutch Golden Age, and interviewing subject matter experts on topics such as art history and the restoration of paintings. He even took up an email correspondence with a master forger who had written a memoir about his exploits.

In the course of his research, Smith learned that only 25 women had been admitted to the Guilds of St. Luke, which in the 17th century controlled such aspects of artistic life as who could sign, date and sell paintings. By contrast, thousands of men were admitted to the guilds in the Netherlands during that period.

Much of the work of these women painters did not survive, or was not attributed to them.

Therefore, said Smith, in writing his book, he focused on “building a novel from the gaps and silences of history.” For more on Smith, visit www.dominicsmith.net

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