All posts in “book club”

SAM Book Club: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Dominic Smith’s newest novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

This is a book that’s hard to describe succinctly. In 1637 Amsterdam, artist Sara de Vos diverges from her training as a still-life painter to paint the landscape At the Edge of a Wood, an enigmatic work she makes as she mourns her daughter’s death. In 1957 Manhattan, the painting is stolen from the home of Marty de Groot, whose family has owned the work for 300 years. And in 2000 Sydney, renowned art historian Ellie Shipley is curating an exhibition of 17th century female Dutch artists when she learns that two versions of At the Edge of a Wood are traveling to her gallery: the original, and the forgery that she herself painted in 1957. Is your head spinning yet?

As difficult as it is to make an elevator pitch of the book’s plot, the three storylines mesh fairly seamlessly as Smith swerves between them—and as they begin to crash into each other. Although they are separated by centuries, the lives of the three main characters become intimately interwoven as they orbit around the painting.

In fact, I said there are three main characters, but you could make a case for four: Sara, Marty, Ellie, and At the Edge of a Wood. The painting itself has a presence, a personality, an impact on the events taking place. It certainly has a gravitational pull on the hapless artist, collector, and curator.

Harder to pinpoint than the plot itself is the category this book fits into. It could be considered a mystery, but the question of who stole the painting is answered on the book jacket. Some of the chapters read like historical fiction, but there’s a definite lean towards “fiction” over “history.” And I suppose there is a romantic relationship subplot, but it reads as more of a dysfunctional cat-and-mouse game than anything else to me. The easiest is to lump it with the seemingly ever-growing category of “art heist book”—think Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, and B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger*—but even that feels unsatisfying: the heist is hoisted in chapter one. What now?

Which brings me back to those four main characters. I think this is ultimately a book that is driven by characters, by relationships, and by the things we do to make, maintain, or break them. And ultimately it hinges not on relationships between people (although there is plenty of material there to armchair psychoanalyze), but on the relationship between people and objects. Or, I should say, one object, that fourth character which is the planet to Sara, Marty, and Ellie’s moons.

I suspect many of us have had a love affair with an art object: a work that moves you, that stays with you for years, that changes the way you think and maybe even changes the direction of your life. Isn’t that what drives us to art museums? The close encounter with art objects, and the chance to let them teach and inspire you?

But for the three human characters in the novel, the relationship with At the Edge of a Wood is anything but healthy. For Sara, painting it is an act of mourning she is driven to complete, as if it will assuage her grief or extend the too-short life of her daughter. For Marty, even as he seeks to reclaim the painting he suspects it has been a bad luck charm, blaming it for generations of ill health and unhappiness. And as for Ellie: what kind of self-destructive act is it to write a book about the very painting she forged, to spend a career shedding light on that one work, and to literally invite the crimes of her past to her doorstep? That is some serious projection of personal issues onto someone (or something) else.

As the plot thickens so do these issues until—they release. Sara finds happiness and love; Marty lives a long and happy (enough) life; and Ellie lets go of her demons, or they let go of her. And all three are able to rekindle a healthy relationship—a spark of new romance—with the object that inspired it all to begin with.

What did you think of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

*See what I did there? Bonus books to tide you over until the next SAM Book Club installment! You’re welcome.

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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SAM Book Club: Up Next – The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Welcome back book lovers! It’s time to announce this quarter’s read for SAM Book Club.

For those who missed our inaugural installation of this new virtual club, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog a month later to discuss in the comments.

This month we’ll be reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. The publisher describes this newly-released novel as “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.” I mean, can you resist?

Pick up a copy, take it to the beach, or the pool—or wherever these sunny summer days are calling you—and meet me back here on August 25 to discuss The Last Painting of Sara de Vos!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

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SAM Book Club: I Am Madame X

Welcome back to the inaugural edition of SAM Book Club! Today we’re discussing Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X, and the woman behind John Singer Sargent’s most infamous portrait.

It probably comes as no surprise that Sargent’s 1884 portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau caused, as they say, a stir. With a neckline that would be classified as a “deep plunge” even by today’s standards, Madame Gautreau’s 19th-century little black dress spoke clearly and unapologetically to the sitter’s sensuality. When you add her bluish-pale skin, the originally dangling shoulder strap, and—most scandalous of all—her wedding ring, you get a picture of a brash, vain, and sexual (married) woman living a century before her time.

Diliberto does an excellent job of capturing (or perhaps reconstructing) this personality. A work of historical fiction in the guise of a memoir, I Am Madame X is told in Virginie’s voice—a particularly poignant approach since her voice, and indeed even her name, had for so long been removed from the portrait. Diliberto relays some of her subject’s frustration and anger at this erasure, in a prologue narrated by the fictional curator Richard Merriweather:

“[Sargent] still calls it Portrait of Madame ***, just as it was titled at the Salon, or simply, Portrait. And he always requests that your name not be communicated to the newspapers. Isn’t that amusing?”

Virginie wasn’t amused at all. In fact, she was furious. “Don’t I have a name?” she cried, rising out of her chair. . . . “If Sargent had any honor, he would call my picture Portrait of Virginie Avegno Gautreau. After all, it is my picture as much as his.”

It was the claim over her own representation that so struck me in reading this passage, and which I returned to over and over throughout the book. Of all the many relationships Virginie has throughout the novel—with her family, with Sargent, with her ill-fated romances—it is the relationship with her physical self that the rest of the narrative hinges on. Her beauty is her calling card, profession, and meal ticket all wrapped up in one, and she cultivates it accordingly. True, much of this is imposed on her by external pressures, most notably her mother (let’s take a minute to remember that dear old mom made Virginie ingest poison to make her skin paler. Parents, amiright?). But ultimately Virginie’s self-determination to secure her status as Most Beautiful Woman in Paris drives much of the novel’s plot. The clothes must be flattering; the hair must be hennaed; and the skin must be near-deathly pale.

Which makes Sargent’s removal of her name from this carefully constructed image—much less the public’s decrying it as ugly—such a twist of the knife. If her whole reputation, persona, even sense of self-empowerment, is tied to her physical appearance, what does it mean to take that identification away?

At the end of the novel Virginie muses about how “everything was changed”, but what really struck me was how much seemed to be the same. The racial and social hierarchies of post-belle époque France and postbellum Louisiana are still very much in play. Virginie has a happy relationship with her daughter, but the girl’s “grand society” marriage to a successful man is still celebrated as a great achievement, exactly as Virginie’s own mother wished for her. And, in the estimation of the prologue’s narrator, “though her figure had become matronly, her finely lined face was still beautiful”—the ultimate “she looks great (for her age).” Everything has changed and everything is the same.

Well, not quite everything: Virginie has reclaimed her representation. She is Madame X.

What did you think of I Am Madame X? Do you agree that her physical appearance was essential to her identity? Did you think she changed by the end of the novel? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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Hey, we’re starting an art book club!

SAM staff members tend to be avid book lovers, and when we’re not talking about art, you’ll likely find us talking about books. The books we’re reading now, the books on hold at the library, and the books we stayed up too late last night finishing. The books we couldn’t put down, and the books we just… couldn’t get through. We compare reading lists, meet in lunchtime book clubs, and make mass trips to the library to pick up the next haul. And yet, we still can’t seem to get enough—so I’m bringin’ it to the internet, to talk about books with you.

Introducing: SAM Book Club. Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. Fiction or nonfiction, old or new—it’s all fair game! About a month before each SAM Book Club post we’ll let you know what we’re reading this quarter so you can get a copy and read along, then meet back here to discuss it in the comments.

To inaugurate SAM Book Club, we’ll be reading I Am Madame X, by Gioia Diliberto—the fictionalized account of Virginie Gautreau, the stunning subject of John Singer Sargent’s painting, Portrait of Madame X (1883-4). I’m looking forward to learning about the rule-breaking, scandal-raising, modern woman behind Sargent’s most infamous work, and her life in belle époque Paris. So, dear readers, hit up your local library, grab a copy, and meet me back here on May 24 to talk about I Am Madame X!

Happy reading!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

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