The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke’s in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain–a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

I read this book (over a month ago, ugh) when I was feeling really sick and it made me feel so much better about everything. While my art knowledge is practically non-existent, I still found it to be highly enjoyable and think that it is a great book to read if you’re feeling a little green around the gills. Or even if you’re not.

This book is basically a checklist of literary whoopee: it’s set in the art world, it features jazz clubs, a Mad Men-style Manhattan couple of the 1950s, a woman painter in the 1630s, some behind the scenes action at the New South Wales art gallery, and a long-kept secret from someone’s youth. Throw in the possibility of an affair, a young woman procrastinating at her dissertation on a Remington, and the tragedy of lost children, and you have all the key ingredients for high-level intrigue.

As for the writing itself, I found it to be elegant and eloquent. There is nothing groundbreakingly innovative about it, but I wasn’t really in the mood for groundbreakingly innovative writing when I read this book. I just wanted a good, well-written, immersive story. And that’s exactly what I got.

The characters are all very compelling and well-constructed. As is always the case with parallel storylines, I enjoyed some narratives more than others. I particularly enjoyed the parts about Ellie’s misadventures in New York as a struggling grad student, although I found the scenes written from Sara de Vos’ perspective to be a little boring at times. On a side note, I was impressed by how well Smith managed to write female characters. None of the women in this book were caricatural and I actually thought that Dominic Smith was a woman until I googled him. Oops.

Overall, I thought that this was a lovely book and I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. I found it to be a quietly compelling page-turner about art, regret, loss, and finding meaning within the constraints of one’s circumstances. Recommended.

Have you read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? What did you think of it? Do you have any recommendations for good books set in the art world? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives — from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to the depredations of the AIDS crisis — Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

It is impossible to walk for long through any large city without passing someone who looks sad and alone and somewhat shrunken. Some days, you might suspect that you are that person. If this thought has ever run through your head, then this book is for you.

In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing explores the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Like her previous works, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, The Lonely City eludes neat categorisation. A fusion of scholarship and memoir, Laing weaves together elements of travel writing, philosophy, biography and art criticism with great tenderness and insight. The result is an elegantly crafted and truly compelling meditation on urban isolation, art, and technology.

In this book, loneliness is both Laing’s subject and emotional state. After a new relationship abruptly dissolved, Laing found herself lost and alone in New York City, “possessed by a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited [her] state”. And so she turned to art as a way of grappling with her own loneliness. In The Lonely City, Laing dedicates her time to examining the lives and work of four very different American artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. A wide cast of secondary subjects (including Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo and Zoe Leonard, among others) also feature in this book and Laing paints an entralling portrait of each and every one of them. Her speculations are sensitive and empathetic, and it is clear that her relationship with the work of each artist is genuine and intimate. In the final chapters (my favourite part of the book), Laing spends a considerable amount of time discussing the AIDS epidemic which swept through the city in the ’80s, as well as the contradictory role the internet plays in our lives, simultaneously connecting and isolating us.

Humane, provocative, and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality, and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, “adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive”. This book is so beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can find an extract from it here if you’re interested.

Have you read The Lonely City? What did you think of it? I would love to hear from you. 

~Anna