This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can’t shake them, even long after the reading’s done. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith deftly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth. In this excerpt, we are introduced to the eponymous painter.
In the long unraveling of her life, Sara will always come back to the leviathan. It is not the cause of Kathrijn’s death and all that follows, but it is the omen that turns their days dark. A spring Sunday, the day blue and cloudless. Word has come that a whale has beached itself in the sandy shallows at Berckhey, a fishing village near Scheveningen. Villagers have tethered it to cables and lugged it ashore where, for two days, it has lain moaning through its leathery blowhole. Buckets of seawater have been doused over the monster’s hull, to delay its passage long enough for scientists and scholars to take a proper inventory of it. To Sara’s husband, a landscape painter by training, this is a rare chance to capture a spectacle and render it with precision. The springtime markets bring a swift trade in canvases and this will surely fetch a boon price. But on the sandy track toward the coast, Sara realizes that half of Amsterdam is making a pilgrimage to see this harbinger from the deep. Barent will have plenty of competition from sketchers and painters and engravers. Sara is also a member of the Guild of St. Luke, though she often helps Barent with his landscapes, grinding pigments and building up the underlayers. Barent’s seascapes and canal scenes are popular among burgomasters and merchants; they fetch twice what she makes for a still life.
They ride in the back of a neighbor’s wagon, a painting field kit and a wicker basket of bread and cheese at their feet. Kathrijn is seven and dressed as if for seafaring—a cinched bonnet, sturdy boots, a compass hanging from a chain around her neck. Sara watches her daughter’s face as they follow the caravan of carts and men on horseback, out into the polder and toward the grassy dunes. When Barent told them about the talk of the leviathan in the taverns, about his desire to go paint the washed-up animal, Kathrijn’s face filled with enormous gravity. It wasn’t fear, but steely resolve. For months, she’s been plagued by nightmares and bedwetting, by terrible visions in the small hours. “I must come see that, Father,” she said earnestly. Barent tried to change the subject, commented that it was no excursion for a girl. For half an hour, it appeared this was the end of the matter. Then, over dinner, Kathrijn leaned over to Sara and whispered in her ear: “More than anything, I want to see the monster die.” Sara was slightly appalled by this grim thought leaving her daughter’s delicate mouth, but she also understood it. A monster had washed up from the deep of the North Sea to die in plain sight, tethered with ropes and cables. All the ravages of the night, the demons and specters that had kept Kathrijn awake for months, might be vanquished in a single afternoon. Sara patted her daughter’s hand and returned to her bowl of stew. She waited to talk to Barent about it at bedtime and eventually he relented.
When they crest a hillside that overlooks the coast, Sara is certain that the whole idea is a terrible mistake. From a distance, the animal looks like a blackened, glistening pelt left to wither in the sun. It is surrounded by scores of people, all of them dwarfed by its bulk. A few men have climbed onto its enormous side with measuring rods and wooden pails. A ladder leans beside one of its twitching fins—broad as a ship’s sailcloth. As the wagon makes the final trek down to the beachhead, their neighbor, Clausz, says that when he was at sea he once saw a whale eye pickled in brandy. “Big as a man’s head, it was, and brined up in a bell jar with all the rest of the captain’s specimens from the south latitudes.” Sara sees Kathrijn’s eyes go wide and she tucks her daughter’s hair behind her ears. “Perhaps the two of us can go take a picnic while Father paints,” Sara says. Kathrijn ignores her and leans toward Clausz sitting on the box seat. “What makes them come ashore like that?” The neighbor adjusts the reins and gives it a moment’s thought. “Some say it’s a messenger from the Almighty, an oracle. Me, I’m more inclined to say the beast just lost his way. If it can happen to a ship then why not to the fish that swallowed Jonah whole?”
They ride onto the sandy flats, tether the horses to a tree stump, and trundle their belongings down to the site of all the commotion. They set up a base of blankets and baskets. Barent puts together his easel and strainer. He’s asked Sara to work at his side and grind pigments; she will also make her own sketches that can be used back in their workroom. “I was thinking I would paint from the water’s edge, perhaps with the beast’s head in the foreground.” Sara says this arrangement should work nicely, though she believes the scene will carry more drama if painted from above—the enormity of the glassy ocean for scale, the fish marauded by antlike city-dwellers, the shadows shortening in the noonday sun. Barent might even sketch until dusk and then commit the final impressions in the waning light. But recently she’s learned that Barent prefers her ideas in the service of his own, so she says nothing.
While Barent scouts out a spot for his painting—no more than a dozen feet from the nearest artist—Sara and Kathrijn join the circling crowd. The air is heady with fishrot and ambergris, a sweetly foul odor. Kathrijn plugs her nose and holds Sara’s hand. They get a few admonishing stares from the men in leather aprons who are at work with their measuring rods and pomanders. Sara garners from overheard conversation that an official from Rekenkamer has established claim to the animal and will put the carcass up for auction. She hears: “By noon tomorrow, the devil’s bowels will burst out in all this sun and a foul pestilence will cloud the air.” The blubber oil will be sold to the soap works, the teeth used for carved ornaments, the intestinal unguents exported to Paris for musky perfumes. One red-faced chap with a logbook is arguing with a colleague over the length of the devilish beast’s unmentionable, a difference of two inches on a confirmed length of three feet. They debate it with scientific candor, calling it a sexing rod and a clamper in quick succession. Sara is glad to see that Kathrijn is oblivious to the conversations of the men—she scrutinizes the hulking mass from under the rim of her bonnet, perhaps drawn into the whorl of her own nocturnal visions.
The tail is the width of a fishing trawler, spotted with flies and barnacles and greenish parasites. The whale is slightly curled in on itself, like a sleeping cat, and before they know it, mother and daughter have wandered into an alcove of festering stench and the much-debated three-foot phallus. Kathrijn’s piping voice says, “Look, a giant sucker has attached itself to his belly,” and this gets a rowdy laugh from the nearby men. Sara takes Kathrijn by the shoulders and guides her toward the head. A villager asks them if they want to stare into the eye of the beast himself, for three stuivers each. He’s propped a ladder against the jawbone and anchored it in the sand. Kathrijn looks up at her mother plaintively. “You can go up, but I prefer the view from down here,” Sara says. She pays the man his fee and watches as Kathrijn climbs slowly up the ladder. Sara imagines the eye backlit with bafflement, a dumbfounded predator looking out from the dark cave of his own skull and mind. She imagines Kathrijn staring, awestruck, into the abyss of that eye and coming back down, now at peace with the hauntings of her dreams. But Kathrijn’s plodding ladder climb and the stilted way she leans over the eye socket suggests a girl carrying out a penance. She hoods her gaze and stares into the whale’s eye for a long time, then climbs slowly down onto the beach, refusing to say a word about what she’s encountered.
The rest of the afternoon is taken up with sketching and painting. Sara works beside Barent on a blanket, preparing his brushes and pigments, watching him work up passages of translucent green and gray, stippling in veins of yellow ocher as the light changes. There is something mysterious and commanding about his work, an intensity that evades her in the constrained view of a still life. They work for several hours, Kathrijn at their side with her own sketchbook—the pages brimming with leaves and shells and horses. Barent and Sara have no desire to be present when the animal finally expires or its innards rupture, so they make a plan with Clausz to be back on the road well before dusk. Barent captures as much of the scene and light as he can; in their workroom he will fill in the intricate details of the whale from Sara’s sketches. Kathrijn makes little forays down to the water’s edge with sticks and wildflowers. After several trips, Sara realizes her daughter has lashed together a tiny wooden raft and carefully placed some flowering heather on top. Not a funeral pyre exactly, but something to commemorate the whale or float her visions away. The earnest superstitions of seven-year-olds never fail to amaze her. Not thirty feet away, villagers debate the deeper meaning of the whale coming ashore—approaching flood or famine or Berckhey burning to the ground. “God turn away evil from our beloved fatherland,” one of the fishermen keeps muttering.
The trip back to the city is less crowded. An hour from Amsterdam, they stop on the outskirts of a small village for a snack. A peasant family has set up a roadside stand brimming with salted cod, apples, and cheese. There is a ragged-looking boy, about Kathrijn’s age, helping his parents with their stall. Kathrijn, somehow emboldened by her excursion at the beach, asks if she can be the one to buy their food. Barent gives her some money and she steps down from the wagon with the wherewithal of an East Indian trader. She handles the money with care, selecting some apples and wedges of cheese. The peasant family enjoys her manner so much that they send their own son in to conclude the transaction. Everyone is chuffed by the sight of the two seven-year-olds caught up in roadside commerce—there’s even a little haggling over which apples are perfectly ripe. Sara watches it unfold from up on the wagon. The only note of discord is in the boy’s sickly eyes, a tad yellow and drowsy. His hands are well washed and his clothes are clean. Nonetheless, Sara will remember his eyes.
This will be one of the moments Sara tallies when Kathrijn is overcome with fever three days from now. By then, Barent will have worked up the whale scene in meticulous detail—from the ivory serrations of the monster’s mouth to the leather ties on a fisherman’s jerkin. Kathrijn will pass quickly, on the fourth night, her fingertips blackened and her skin crazed with welts. Sara will watch as the only child God has granted her withers and retreats. In the throes of his grief, Barent returns to the painting for months on end, adding figures and actions they did not witness. It becomes so dark and foreboding that they fail to find a buyer for it at the markets. A hooded figure stands on the bow of the enormous head, his back to the painter, plunging an ax into the blackened flesh below. The sky is overrun with lead and smalt. Sara stops painting altogether until winter arrives and the canals freeze over. One blue afternoon, she sees a young girl trudging through a snowy thicket above a frozen branch of the Amstel. Something about the light, about the girl emerging alone from the wood, rouses her to the canvas. Painting a still life suddenly seems unimaginable.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s fourth novel, will be published on April 5 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Library Journal calls it “stunning . . . a masterly, multilayered story that will dazzle readers.”
Dominic Smith grew up in Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of three novels: Bright and Distant Shores, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, and The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared widely, including in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal. He has been a recipient of a Literature Grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, and a Michener Fellowship. He teaches writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
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