The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

BOOK: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page


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For Tamara Smith, M.P.—
beloved sister, loyal friend, trailblazer


Author's Note

During the seventeenth century, the Guilds of St. Luke in the Netherlands controlled all aspects of professional artistic life, including who could sign and date paintings. Guild members included the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan van Goyen. The historical record suggests that as many as twenty-five women were members of the guilds during the seventeenth century. But only a small handful of those artists produced work that has survived or been correctly attributed. For more than a century, the paintings of Judith Leyster were attributed to Frans Hals.

One gap in the historical record concerns Sarah van Baalbergen, the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. She gained entry in 1631, two years before Judith Leyster. None of Van Baalbergen's work has survived.

Although this is a work of fiction, the novel uses such historical gaps as a springboard for invention. For the sake of storytelling, it fuses biographical details from several women's lives of the Dutch Golden Age.


At the Edge of a Wood

Oil on canvas

30" x 24"

Sara de Vos

Dutch, 1607–16??


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. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold, flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice. A brindled dog trots beside a boy as he arcs into a wide turn. One mitten in the air, he's beckoning to the girl, to us. Up along the riverbank, a village is drowsy with smoke and firelight, flush against the bell of the pewter sky. A single cataract of daylight at the horizon, a meadow dazzled beneath a rent in the clouds, then the revelation of her bare feet in the snow. A raven—quilled in violet and faintly iridescent—caws from a branch beside her. In one hand she holds a frayed black ribbon, twined between slender fingers, and the hem of her dress, visible beneath a long gray shawl, is torn. The girl's face is mostly in profile, her dark hair loose and tangled about her shoulders. 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. Her footprints lead back through the snow, toward the wood, beyond the frame. Somehow, she's walked into this scene from outside the painting, trudged onto the canvas from our world, not hers.


Part One


Upper East Side


The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space. Plucked from the wall right above the marital bed during a charity dinner for orphans. This is how Marty de Groot will tell the story in the years ahead, how he'll spin it for the partners at the law firm and quip it to comedic life at dinner parties and over drinks at the Racquet Club. We're dipping shrimp in cocktail sauce, working Rachel's best china out on the terrace because it's mild for early November, you understand, while two thugs—middlemen disguised as caterers, let's say—are swapping out the real painting with a meticulous fake. He'll be particularly proud of that last phrase—
meticulous fake
. He'll use it with friends and insurance agents and the private investigator, because it sets up the rising action of the story, suggests that a prodigy or mastermind has been patiently plotting against him, just as the Russians have been conspiring all these years to colonize the stratosphere. The phrase will also help disguise the fact that Marty didn't notice the beautiful forgery for months.

What he'll omit when he tells the story to most people is that
At the Edge of a Wood
has been in his family for more than three centuries, bequeathed to him on his father's deathbed. He won't mention that it's the only surviving painting of Sara de Vos, the first woman to be admitted, in 1631, as a master to a Guild of St. Luke in Holland. And who could he tell that he liked to stare up at the girl's pale and cryptic face while he made slow, contemplative love to his melancholic wife in the years after her second miscarriage? No, he'll keep all that to himself, like a private faith to a fickle god. He's agnostic but prone to bouts of wild superstition, a personality flourish he tries to conceal. He will come to suspect that the painting's disappearance has caused Rachel's long depression to end and accounts for his firm finally making him partner. Or that the cursed painting explains three hundred years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness, and stroke in his bloodline. Wherever the painting hung—in London, Amsterdam, or New York—the previous owners, he comes to realize, never lived past the age of sixty.

*   *   *

The Rent-a-Beats are Rachel's way of trying to rouse herself back to the living. Feeling bored by the prospect of gently drunk patent attorneys in French cuffs, with conversations about real estate and Nantucket sailing jaunts, she'd remembered an ad she'd clipped from an alumni magazine and fetched it from her recipe box.
Add zest to your Tuxedo Park party … rent a Beat. Completely equipped: beard, eye shades, old army jacket, Levi's, frayed shirt, sneakers or sandals (optional). Deductions allowed for no beard, baths, shoes, or haircuts. Lady Beats also available.

If they were going to raise money for the city's orphans every year—it sounded Dickensian, even to her—then why not let the city in, bring up some grit and color from the Lower East Side and the Village. When she called the number in the ad a woman with an adenoidal voice answered, apparently reading from a script. For a flat rate of $250, the woman promised without inflection, you can have two artists, two poets, and two intellectuals show up at a designated time. Rachel imagined a basement in Queens where divorcées with headsets sat like African violets under fluorescent lights. She imagined out-of-work actors trawling in from Hoboken with her address written on a matchbook. The woman asked, “How many Beats would you like, ma'am?” and “Do you prefer the women in Mexican shawls or bolero jackets?” By the end of the call, Rachel had chosen their complete wardrobe, right down to the ballet flats, berets, sunglasses, and silver earrings. That was weeks ago and now—on the day of the event—she wonders if the whole idea isn't in bad taste. A Russian dog is orbiting the planet and she fears her little prank will be judged as frivolous and unpatriotic. She broods about it all morning, unable to tell Marty that a troupe of bohemians will be arriving at nine sharp, during after-dinner cocktails.

*   *   *

Marty has planned some fun of his own, a little demonstration for his guests and colleagues. He keeps it to himself while Rachel bustles among the caterers. By five, all three floors of the prewar penthouse smell like lilies and bread and it jolts his senses awake. He stands by the French doors on the top floor, out of the way, watching the rooms burnish with late-afternoon light. There's a fleeting sense of nostalgia and satisfaction as dusk pours through the space. Everything seems impossibly solid and real at this time of day and year, every object flushed with significance. Growing up, he'd always found this room distant and museum-like. The woody, gloaming interiors in the background of seventeenth-century Dutch portraits felt oppressive, the lacquered oriental boxes seemed austere and aloof, but now that these things belong to him he finds comfort in staring at them in that hour before the first lamp is switched on. A life contained, parsed into objects. When he closes his eyes he can smell the linseed oil in the seascapes or the Turkish prayer rugs that somehow smell like warming hay. He pours two fingers of single malt and anchors himself in the Danish leather recliner—his Hamlet chair, Rachel calls it. Carraway, the ten-year-old beagle, comes trotting from down the hallway, scampers across the parquet floor, his metal tag jangling. Marty drops one hand and lets the dog lick his fingertips. And that's when he sees Rachel through the doorway of the galley kitchen, moving among the caterers in their crisp white aprons. Head bent, one hand idling her pearl necklace, she's conferring with such diplomacy that it could be a matter of national security they're talking about instead of rice pilaf and wild salmon. It occurs to him that she's always been at her best in the throes of preparation—a trip, a dinner, a party. Lately, there's been the quiet fatigue they both ignore. She's constantly on the verge of a breathy intake of air and whenever she walks into a room, it seems she's had to pause out in the hallway to first gather herself up, like an actor walking onstage. Sometimes, when he comes home late from the office, he'll find her asleep in the living room with all the lights out and Carraway curled beside her. Or he finds empty wineglasses around the house, in the library, beside the bed, and Russian novels tucked between cushions or left out on the terrace to bleach and dog-ear in the weather.

She catches his eye and comes toward him. He rubs behind Carraway's ears, smiling up at her. The last five years, he thinks, have taken twenty years off the clock. He turned forty in the spring, a capstone to his stalled-out career and their inability to bring children into the world. It occurs to him that he'd started everything late—law school, a career, the first overtures toward a family. Inherited wealth held him back, stunted him until his early thirties. Seven years, up or out, was the conventional wisdom for aspiring partners at the firm, and now he is in his seventh year. He sees it in Rachel's gaze as she draws nearer—
Why did we wait so long?
She's eight years younger than he is but less resilient. Not frail, but cautious and easily bruised. For a suspended moment he thinks she's approaching with a staid, wifely kiss, one of those rehearsed gestures she occasionally plucks from the folds of her depression. Instead, she tells him not to get dog hair on his dress slacks. She passes close enough that he can smell burgundy on her breath and he suddenly wonders what the caterers think of her, then despises himself for caring. He watches her as she heads down the hallway toward the bedroom and disappears. He sits there until the room bloats with darkness. Eventually, he gets up and walks room to room, switching on the lamps.

BOOK: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
7.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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