The Last Painting of Sara De Vos Summary & Study Guide

Dominic Smith
This Study Guide consists of approximately 39 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Last Painting of Sara De Vos.
This section contains 664 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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The Last Painting of Sara De Vos Summary & Study Guide Description

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith.

NOTE: This study guide refers specifically to the 2016 Sarah Chrichton Books/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux First Edition of the Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a novel by Dominic Smith, focuses on Ellie Shipley, an art historian and former forger. Ellie attempts to learn more about obscure, but superbly talented, seventeenth-century Dutch painter Sara de Vos. The novel is set in three different eras: the 1950s, the 1630s, and the year 2000. The plot revolves around the only known surviving painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood.

In 1636, Sara de Vos and her husband, Barent, are painters belonging to the Amsterdam artists’ Guild of Saint Luke. Indeed, Sara is the first woman admitted to the Guild. However, the death of their daughter and Barent’s inability to complete commissions on time plunge the family into debt. In grief, Sara paints a picture of her daughter at the edge of the woods, looking down below at skaters on a frozen river, caught between two worlds –the living, and the dead. Sara and Barent create paintings illegally and without signatures to sell outside the Guild, and in so doing, run afoul of the Guild. When Barent is posed for debtor’s prison, he abandons Sara. Sara then turns to the Guild for help, which agrees to help pay down her debts in exchange for an auction of her works from which the Guild will take a commission. A visiting shipper, Pieter de Groot, observes Sara’s woodland scene and purchases it. The painting will be handed down through the generations of the de Groot family.

During an Aid Society dinner hosted by Marty and Rachel de Groot at their New York apartment in the late fall of 1958, “At the Edge of a Wood” is stolen. A short time later, the original surfaces at Ellie Shipley’s apartment. Ellie, a native-born Australian, has come to New York in anger after being rebuffed by the art community in London. Taking on restoration work, Ellie ekes out a living and saves as much money as she can. She is tasked with copying the de Vos painting, not realizing what she believes to be a harmless copy requested by the owner will actually be a forgery. Meanwhile, Marty is stunned and disturbed by the theft of the painting, and hires a private investigator, Red Hammond, to track it down. He eventually tracks down Ellie, and hands her information over to Marty.

Marty is struck by the fact that the much-younger Ellie is not a criminal. Marty decides he wants to get to know her before turning her over to the police. He hires her to help him buy paintings for his collection, and the two fall in love with each other. When they finally have sex, Marty is horrified that he has cheated on his wife, and leaves Ellie. Ellie learns the truth about Marty and the painting she has forged, and for the next several decades –through a failed marriage and taking on a professorship at Sydney University –always worries that the ghosts of her past will wreck her career. In August 2000, the Art Gallery of New South Wales hosts an exhibition of old Dutch paintings, including Sara’s “At the Edge of a Wood.” When both the copy and the original are loaned to the exhibition (in addition to a newly rediscovered work of Sara’s), Ellie believes her career is over. Instead, Marty and Ellie make peace about the past. Marty buys the copy in order to protect Ellie, while Ellie agrees to keep him informed as she decides to continue to search for more about Sara’s life. As she does, she discovers yet another painting of Sara’s in an attic of the woman who also had the other undiscovered painting by Sara. The painting Ellie discovers is a self-portrait of Sara, painted just before her death in 1649.

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