In 1957 New York, graduate student Ellie Shipley has been commissioned to paint an exact replica of the seventeenth century painting by Dutch artist Sara de Vos. “At the Edge of a Wood” has been in the de Groot family for three hundred years and Ellie is told the owner has supplied her with photographs for her work because he can’t bear to part with the original. Ellie is transfixed by the commission and willingly suspends her disbelief of the story in order to do the work.
She peeled back the antique canvas with diluted solvents, working in small circles, one inch at a time. She saved the old varnish as she stripped it off, squeezing the cotton swabs into a mason jar. To the naked canvas, she applied a thin coat of fresh ground but retained the surface signature of the original. Next, she sketched with pale chalk before dead coloring with raw umber used with black. The actual painting was slow and painstaking — a week on the woods, a week on the sky, two weeks on the frozen river and ice skaters. Each passage had its own technical puzzles. The bright yellows flecked into the scarves of the ice skaters were oddly textured and she eventually decided on mixing a little sand into chrome yellow. After the transparent glazes, she bleached the painting under an ultraviolet light for a week and cured it for a month in the furnace room below the basement stairs of her building. She worked a spiderweb of cracks into the canvas from behind, using a soft rubber ball. She used a spray gun to mist the picture with the antique varnish she’d set aside.
Author Smith builds the layers of his novel — The Last Painting of Sara de Vos — with an equivalent exacting detail; the story’s base occurs in Amsterdam in the spring of 1636 when impoverished artist Sara de Vos, the first female admitted to the prestigious artist’s Guild, paints At the Edge of a Wood. He applies the color of 1957 Manhattan and Ellie Shipley’s forgery of that painting. And finally, in the year 2000, Smith brings in the bleaching of age and spiderweb of cracks: there is to be a Women of the Dutch Golden Age retrospective featuring At the Edge of a Wood in Sydney, Australia, curated by Ellie Shipley. Unfortunately for Ellie, two different versions of the painting appear.
Smith writes that his precise prose is due, in part, to his collaboration with art experts. The level of artistic detail the author applies and describes so aptly allows readers to see the images. On http://www.dominicsmith.net/the_last_painting_of_sara_de_vos.php, Smith writes:
More than any other novel I’ve written, this book relied on the knowledget of experts. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with Stephen Gritt, the head of conservation at the National Gallery of Canada. It was Stephen who first turned me on to lead-tin yellow and its fascinating history. Frima Fox Hofrichter, the preeminent specialist on Dutch women painters of 17th century Holland, answered my never-ending questions by email and by phone. And, finally, the master forger who described his career in Caveat Emptor, Ken Perenyi, was kind enough to vet my fabrications.
Smith’s website also features an interactive image where you can see how to forge your own Dutch masterpiece. (Good luck with boiling that rabbit pelt, btw.)
He came to the subject matter of the novel during time spent in Amsterdam. “There are all these missing layers of the Dutch Golden Age that most people don’t know about. By some estimates, there were 50,000 painters at work in the 17th century in Holland, and of that number, there were about 25 women who were admitted to the Guild of St. Luke’s, the main painters’ guild. We only have a small handful of paintings that have survived from them, and so I got really interested in this idea of lost painters of the Golden Age.” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-dominic-smith-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-20160331-story.html
My book club is reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos this month (September 2016) and I’ve heard a few grumble that it is slow moving, or not quite enrapturing. Part of that may be by way of comparison to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — a novel to which Sara de Vos is often compared but not really akin to. The artistic detail of Sara de Vos is minute, and I liked that about this book. The art crime is almost secondary to the process. And even if “the art” is not your or your book club’s thing, there is plenty here to discuss. A love story, three distinct time periods, female outliers, ethical dilemmas. I do recommend The Last Painting of Sara de Vos for your book club.
This post marks the beginning of a symbol system for daeandwrite.com. On a scale of one to five ✎, I will award ✎✎✎✎✎ for my highest book club rating and ✎ for the lowest recommendation. Let me know, as always, if you agree or disagree!
In 1637, Sara describes a meal of mutton with prunes and mint, minced ox tongue with green apples. In 1957, Ellie and Marty share a meal of peanuts, red wine and Tom Collins at a jazz club in Manhattan and they share a lunch of sandwiches and chowder during a weekend trip to Vermont. In 2000, Ellie serves guests a trap of olives, Marcona almonds, Dutch gouda and water crackers. At the premiere of the exhibition, there is a table of “highly salted” canapés and champagne.
My menu would include
Gouda and water crackers
New England Clam Chowder
Stroopwaffels. These could be homemade (if you are ambitious, here’s a recipe: http://www.holland.com/global/tourism/holland-information/dutch-recipes/stroopwafels-1.htm) but I would buy those little wafer cookies, pizzelles, and fill them with caramel sauce. Voila! Stroopwaffles.
Dominic Smith was kind enough to answer my email asking him for some suggestions and forwarded to me a recipe for Dutch Apple Pie which looks delicious!
A 17th century Dutch Apple Pie (appelltaart) recipe from author Dominic Smith, paired with his novel, THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS.
- 4 tablespoons raisins
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 1/4 pounds tart apples
- 4 1/2 tablespoons superfine sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup self-rising flour (the wordsmith in me finds it interesting that Australians and Europeans call this self-raising flour) (see note)
- ¾ cup superfine sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 tablespoon dried breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup good quality apricot jam
- 2 tablespoon white rum (or water)
- Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving
- Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling over the top
- Prepare the filling: Soak raisins in a bowl with a cup of hot water. Let stand for 15 minutes
- Add the lemon juice to a large mixing bowl. Peel and core and chop apples, placing pieces into the lemon juice as you go. Stir occasionally. Drain raisins, squeeze out water gently, and stir into the apples. Mix in sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.
- Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring-form pan. Preheat oven to 365°F.
- Prepare the dough: In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter on medium speed with a paddle attachment until softened and creamy, 1-2 minutes. Remove bowl from mixer.
- Sift flours into a large mixing bowl, and add sugar, salt, lemon peel, egg and water. Mix all ingredients with your hands; knead until it’s pliable dough. If it’s too dry, add a teaspoon of water. If it’s too sticky, add a touch of all-purpose flour. Cut a third of the dough and set it aside.
- Shape the remaining dough into a ball and place it in the middle of the spring-form pan.
- Press the dough over the bottom of the pan and up the sides, until two-thirds of the pan height is covered. Keep dough spread evenly. Sprinkle the base with the breadcrumbs. (They will soak up some moisture from the apples.) Stir the filling again and pour it into the pan, spreading evenly.
- Divide remaining dough into smaller pieces. Roll remaining dough into approximately ten thin strips and lay strips that will fit across the pan over the apples in a lattice pattern.
- Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
- Prepare the glaze: Ten minutes before the pie is ready, place apricot jam and rum (or water) in a small saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat, until it comes to a boil and then immediately remove from the heat.
- When the apple pie is ready, remove from the oven and spread glaze immediately over top with brush. Allow to cool.
- Remove sides from pan and serve. Pie can be eaten warm or at room temperature. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, sprinkled with a little cinnamon.
Recipe adapted from My Little Expat Kitchen (http://mylittleexpatkitchen.blogspot.com/2011/11/dutch-apple-pie.html)
To make self-rising flour at home: Add 1-1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of all-purpose flour (use ¾ cup of this mixture for this recipe).
Charlie Parker – my original suggestion — glad to see it on author Dominic Smith’s playlist as well!
UPDATE 9/13/16: Dominic Smith was kind enough to answer an enquiring email from me and provided me with a link to a blogger named Largehearted Boy who solicits playlists from authors and then puts them together for readers. I’m going to get in touch with Largehearted boy! But for now, here’s Dominic’s playlist link: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2016/04/book_notes_domi_1.html
In his own words, here’s Dominic’s explanation (again from Largehearted Boy)
At the center of my new novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, is a rare 17th-century Dutch landscape. We follow it through time, looking at the way it changes the course of three different lives, in three different centuries. We see the circumstances under which Sara de Vos paints it in 1630s Amsterdam, and the 1950s life of the wealthy Manhattan lawyer who inherits the painting, then has it stolen. We also witness half a century in the life of an Australian art historian who was paid to make a copy of the landscape in her twenties. Now, in 2000, in the prime of her illustrious career, both her forgery and the original show up for a Sydney exhibition she’s curating on Dutch woman painters of the Golden Age.
If there is a soundtrack to this novel, it contains three musical movements, from three different continents and time periods: European baroque music, 1950s American jazz, and Australian contemporary music. The first two are obviously iconic and brimming with classics. The last one is lesser known, perhaps, but there are some gems lurking there just the same.
ACT I: The Golden Age
Giovanni Pandolfi’s Sonata Op. 3, No. 1, La Stella
While the Dutch Golden Age sparked a deluge of prolific painters, the same can’t be said for classical composers. There aren’t really any Golden Age Dutch composers to rival the Germans or the Italians. Nonetheless, music was everywhere in 17th-century Holland—in taverns and music halls, and in the music rooms of the wealthy.
And we see musical themes in the paintings of artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Judith Leyster, and Jan Steen. What I like about the Italian composer Pandolfi is that he was largely lost for a few centuries before being rediscovered. This is exactly what happened to Judith Leyster, one of the first women painters to be admitted to a Guild of St. Luke.
Pinksterliedje – “Song of the Whitsun Flower”
While the wealthy might have been listening to a Pandolfi recital in a canal house, the poorer classes were more likely to be dancing and singing along to folk music in the taverns. Instead of the harpsichord, you were more likely to hear bagpipes, fiddles, the hurdy-gurdy and lots of clapping and foot stomping. Your average rabble-rouser knew dozens of songs and dances by rote.
PART II: The Sound of Jazz
Charlie Parker’s “Koko”
One of my main characters, Marty de Groot, is a jazz enthusiast who regularly goes out to a basement club in Manhattan of the 1950s. He recalls seeing Charlie Parker play in an earlier time and regrets that he abandoned the trumpet in high school, that he never explored his own musical potential. This tune is shifting and unpredictable, just like Marty de Groot’s life after he discovers that someone has swapped out the iconic landscape painting above his bed with a meticulous fake. Gary Giddins, who wrote a book celebrating Parker, said of this tune: “It’s like a ping-pong ball being blown by a fan in a very small room, where he changes the accents on every measure, on every phrase.” The same could be said for this period of Marty de Groot’s life.
John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”
Recorded in 1959 but released in 1960 on an album of the same name, this jazz tune feels like it ends one era and begins another. It’s a study in change and progression. By the end of the 1950s, two of my characters, Marty de Groot and Ellie Shipley, have burned certain bridges with the past but they’re also tied to it in a deep and abiding way. Jazz has always felt like that to me—something new emerges but it is inextricably tied to what’s come before.
PART III: The Antipodes
Paul Kelly’s “Before Too Long”
This is nominally a love song, but I’ve always found something unsettling in the lyrics: Before too long/He who is nothing/Will suddenly come into view. When Ellie Shipley’s past comes back to haunt her in Sydney in 2000—as the city embraces the world stage with the Olympics—it’s like a wrecking ball coming through the side of a house.
Hoodoo Gurus’ “What’s My Scene”
When I was in high school in Sydney during the late 1980s, this song hit the charts. There’s a line that perfectly evokes Ellie Shipley’s fundamental dilemma throughout her life—I’ve been caught in someone else’s scene (but that’s not me). She’s someone who’s never quite found where she fits in, whether in New York, London or Sydney. That restlessness and searching quality is a core part of her character. I also love the fact that this song has two different choruses—a stylistic flourish that Ellie would appreciate given her training as an artist and historian.
Ellie Shipley — Mia Wasikowska
Marty de Groot — Jeremy Renner
Sara de Vos — Famke Janssen
Happy Reading & Eating!
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