Everything that deceives must be said to enchant.

~ PLATO

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Faking The Canvas
Fake sales and fly droppings

Every fake should tell a story. A narrative of neglect often goes a long way. Neglected paintings are often stored in barns and attics for years. After seventy-five years or so fly droppings form in particular patterns. The flies are drawn to the sugar in the varnish. Imitation flyspecks can be achieved if epoxy glue mixed with amber-tinted pigment can be applied with a pinhead if the pattern is studied. Also, blue chalk marks on the back of the frame, erased by hand, suggest previous auction sales.

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How to Forge a 17th-Century Dutch Canvas
Vetted by master forger, Ken Perenyi

1 Find an older, larger, inexpensive canvas of the same Dutch region and age

2 Use cotton swabs and cotton Q-tips in diluted solvents to remove the upper layers of the painting down to the priming layer

3 Squeeze out and save the old varnish for later re-use

4 Preserve the weave pattern of the canvas, the "surface signature"

5 Apply another layer of ground, matching the Dutch style and color of the original

6 Sketch in pale chalk (true to the period and it won’t show up in infrared analysis)

7 Make pigments from scratch, using period ingredients whenever possible

8 Add siccatives to pigments to harden and “age” the oil paints

9 Copy the brushwork and composition, stroke for stroke

10 Apply transparent glazes, then put the painting under a UV light for a month to speed up photo-oxidation

11 Let the painting dry out for a month under a fluorescent light in a furnace room

12 Take the canvas off the strainer and run the back over a table edge to produce craquelure

13 Re-stretch the canvas, put it back on the strainer, apply the set-aside antique varnish with a spray gun

14 Let the varnish dry; use tacs that have rusted in water for a month

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The Kitchen As Forger's Studio
Forgers like Eric Hebborn recommend the kitchen as a forger's accomplice:

  • Kitchen stove for heating pastes, glues, and oils
  • Oven for hardening and cracking of oil paint
  • Water from the sink when bleaching, tinting, and stretching
  • Eggs for tempera, milk as a fixative
  • Breadcrumbs to reduce the darkness of chalk drawings; simulates the dark look of old drawings
  • Halved potatoes over a grease stain on paper will permit ink to be applied
  • Coffee, tea, and chicory for tinting papers
  • Ice trays for tints of sepia inks
  • Olive oil for stains; gelatin in sizes and glues
  • Flour for making pastes; pastry-board as drawing board
  • Mortar and pestle
  • Knifes and spoons

Researching the Book:
Encounters with the Art World

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.

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Lead white
Flake white
Yellow ochre
Raw sienna
Red ochre
Burnt sienna
Vermilion
Raw umber
Burnt umber
Terre verte
Genuine ultramarine
Ivory black

Lead-tin yellow iLead-Tin YellowThis toxic and enigmatic, yellow-white pigment features prominently in the novel. The earliest Medieval recipes called for fusing lead, tin and quartz compounds at 800° C. The result was a yellow lead glass that could be ground and put through a fine mesh. Despite being a mainstay yellow for the Golden Age Dutch Masters—you can see it in the jacket of the woman in Vermeer’s A Lady Writing—the pigment fell off the map. No one knows why exactly it disappeared, but safer, synthetic yellows certainly helped its demise. A German scientist rediscovered lead-tin yellow and brought it back to the art world’s consciousness in the 1940s.

The Forger’s 17th
century palette

Rollover to view colors

Synopsis

In 1631, Sara de Vos becomes the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke in Holland. Three hundred years later, At the Edge of a Wood, her haunting winter scene of a girl watching skaters at dusk, is her only surviving work. It hangs in the bedroom of a Park Avenue coop of a wealthy Manhattanite, a descendant of the original owner. Meanwhile, in the grungier reaches of Brooklyn, an Australian art history grad student struggling to stay afloat in New York agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape for a dubious art dealer. Half a century later, she's a prominent curator back home in Sydney, mounting an exhibition of female Dutch painters of the Golden Age. Both versions of At the Edge of a Wood by Sara de Vos are en route to her museum, threatening to unravel her life and reputation. Read an excerpt

New York Times Bestseller
New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

An elegant page-turner…

Kathryn Harrison
The New York Times Book Review

Absolutely transporting…

Maureen Corrigan
NPR’s Fresh Air

A riveting tale of art theft…[a] suspenseful story of one painting’s rippling impact on three people over multiple centuries and locations.

Ian Shapira
The Washington Post

Lustrous...skillful plotting and effortless prose.

Ann Clark
The Chicago Tribune

As luminous as a Vermeer.

People

Incandescent…Smith plunges us into the world of the art forger with precision and startling beauty.

Caroline Leavitt
San Francisco Chronicle

Gorgeous storytelling: wry, playful, and utterly alive, with an almost tactile awareness of the emotional contours of the human heart…

Laura Collins-Hughes
The Boston Globe

As this story of art, beauty, deception and the harshest kinds of loss ranged over continents and centuries, I was completely transfixed by the sense of unfolding revelation. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is, quite simply, one of the best novels I have ever read, and as close to perfect as any book I’m likely to encounter in my reading life. One of those rare books I’ll return to again and again in the coming years.

BEN FOUNTAIN, bestselling author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Finalist

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a story told in layers of light. From afar, this novel is so beautiful, the prose so clear and vivid, that it seems effortless; on closer examination, one sees the rich thematic palette Dominic Smith has used. This is a novel of love and longing, of authenticity and ethical shadows, and, most importantly, of art as alchemy, the way that it can turn grief into profound beauty.

LAUREN GROFF, bestselling author of Fates and Furies and Arcadia

Gliding gracefully from grungy 1950s Brooklyn to the lucent interiors of Golden Age Holland and the sun-splashed streets of contemporary Sydney, the novel links the lives of two troubled, enigmatic, and hugely talented young women, one of them an artist, the other, her forger. A page-turning book with much to say about the pain and exhilaration of art and life.

GERALDINE BROOKS, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and The Year of Wonders

In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith moves effortlessly between his seventeenth century artist and those who fall under the spell of her work more than three hundred years later.  Smith is a writer of huge gifts and his descriptions of the painting and of those who fall in love with it, (and with each other) are rendered with wondrous intelligence and keen wit.  The result is a novel of surprising beauty and piercing suspense.  I couldn't stop turning the pages even while the last thing I wanted was to reach the end.

MARGOT LIVESEY, New York Times bestselling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy