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Dominic Smith’s ‘Sara de Vos’ takes us deep into Dutch art world

Austin’s Dominic Smith burst onto the literary scene in 2006 with “The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre,” a historical novel about the early days of photography. His latest, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” is another dive into the past, this time focusing on a fictional female painter in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century.

But it’s much more than that, seamlessly going back and forth in time, dealing with a 1950s Manhattan lawyer whose family has owned a de Vos painting for centuries as well as an art historian and curator in the 2000s, who in the 1950s forged the de Vos painting. She discovers decades later that her forgery, which is believed to be an original, is headed to her museum for an exhibition.

Before Smith came to Austin in 2000, where he earned his MFA at the Michener Center for Writers, the native Australian lived in Amsterdam for a year, “and that’s where this book started to first percolate,” he says. “It took awhile to get back to the material” — including two intervening novels, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous” (2007) and “Bright and Distant Shores” (2011).

But during the years, he kept thinking about his art adventures in Amsterdam. “What’s great about the Dutch Golden Age is that you could buy a painting for the cost of a house, or you could also buy a painting for the cost of a fish at the market,” he says. “You could walk into the shop of a butcher or a cheese maker and you could see floor-to-ceiling paintings.”

As with literature, high and low art were interconnected, Smith says, much like today’s debates over literary fiction vs. genre fiction. “It all had value,” he says, “and a lot of great artists didn’t shy away from bawdy tavern scenes. … My sense is that in the Golden Age, even though there was a Guild and the paintings of Rembrandt were considered to be at the top of the pyramid, to be a painter of any kind and to ply that trade was really very respectable, no matter what your painting looked like.”

Overall, there were about 50,000 Dutch Golden Age painters, and Smith points out that their output was phenomenal. Still, “the estimate is that 1 percent of the paintings survived. Every year you see paintings from the period go up for auction, but we don’t know who the painters are, so there are all kinds of lost painters within the world of estate sales and auction houses. We don’t have a biography to link to the signature.”

That background plays a key role in the creation of the fictional Sara de Vos and her only known surviving painting, “At the Edge of a Wood.” In the foreground of the painting is de Vos’ dead daughter, Kathrijn, “trapped by the eternity of dusk as she watches skaters on a frozen river, forever waiting, a passive witness to the living.”

The inspiration for de Vos’ creation was Judith Leyster, who gained entry into the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke in 1631. “The historical record suggests that as many as twenty-five women were members of the guilds during the seventeenth century,” Smith writes. “But only a 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.”

Smith says that his novel “fuses biographical details from several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age,” but the real tension comes from events in 2000, when well-known art historian Ellie Shipley is waiting for the arrival of two paintings titled “At the Edge of the Wood” at the museum where she works in Australia. One of them, she knows, is a forgery. And the owner of one of them, Marty DeGroot of New York, is headed to Shipley’s museum, possibly causing a scandal that will end her career.

Smith will talk about his new book and the Dutch Golden Age on Thursday at the Blanton Museum of Art.

The research

Smith had to do a lot of research to make sure his new novel was historically accurate. One of his key sources was Frima Fox Hofrichter, “who has spent her whole career studying Judith Leyster, and she told me what a woman’s life would have been like at that time,” Smith says. Also helpful was Stephen Gritt, director of conservation at the National Gallery of Canada, who provided details about the technical aspects of art restoration and conservation.

But another source was less academic. He was Ken Perenyi, a master art forger who wrote a book, “Caveat Emptor,” detailing his crimes after the statute of limitations expired. Perenyi “sold hundreds of fake paintings over the years, and the FBI could never catch him, and then he wrote this tell-all memoir in which he described his technique, how he did everything,” Smith says. “And he and I started this email correspondence. I honestly got him to authenticate the forgery technique in my book, which is kind of funny. … He pointed out several mistakes that I had made.”

The book, of course, isn’t just about an art forgery. “This book has two forgeries, a moral forgery in addition to an art forgery,” Smith says, referring to the conundrum that the compromised art historian Shipley faces. “And I think that, for me, you have your own judgment about the character, and you like some more than others. But your job is to find out the truth about it. And for me, it felt like by the end there is this kind of redemptive quality, in the way that Sara de Vos continues to have a life beyond her own mortal life — that you can look at a painting that’s 400 years old and feel an abiding connection. That seems very important.”

Smith is talking about art with a capital “A.” And he readily admits that he doesn’t think in capital “A” terms when doing his own writing, although he’s probably one of the finest historical fiction writers working today.

“Like most writers, I look at the careers of people I really admire, and like every creative career, it has its ups and downs. You see writers who hit their peak and then maybe write three of four novels that are OK,” Smith says. “But what endures is pretty fickle. In the painting world, Judith Leyster is sort of a prototype for that. She was lost for 200 years.”

Then he adds: “It’s an interesting thing about what endures. Lots of things play a role in it. In my own world, I’m happy to be read now, let alone five years down the road.”

The Michener connection

It’s unlikely that Smith will fade away anytime soon. In fact, if you’re looking for a good example of the impact of the Michener Center for Writers on the Austin literary scene, you need look no further than Smith — one of the best of many fine writers to emerge from the University of Texas institution.

Because the Michener Center provides funding for its residents for three years, it was a turning point in Smith’s career.

“The program is great because it’s hands-on, and it’s sort of an apprenticeship model,” Smith says. “I worked closely with (center director) Jim Magnuson, and I liked the fact that Michener’s idea was that you work in multiple genres. He wanted to create working writers, and that meant that if you were a poet, then maybe you should also learn how to write a screenplay. Or if you were a fiction writer, maybe should learn how to write plays and screenplays. Writing screenplays really helped my dialogue, and to some extent, my plotting, because screenwriting is a structurally tight form, and you take that back to the novel, and you get much more serious about how to design and shape the novel.”

Smith says he thinks the Michener Center “has become its own little incubator because it attracts writers from around the world. I think it’s interesting that (best-selling author James) Michener gave Texas this endowment, and I think it’s been a huge boon for local writers.”

Regarding the state’s literary scene, he says: “I see a wealth of new and up-and-coming Texas writers, and I think there’s a lot of exciting things going on in Texas literature.”

What’s next

Most writers hesitate when asked about what they’re working on next. It’s as if you might jinx the project by talking about it. And novels sometimes get put on the backburner because of uncontrollable events.

But Smith is already working on his next historical novel, he says. And he enjoys the research.

“The nice thing about writing historical fiction is that you get to engage experts and go very deep for a while. There’s no replacement for people who have spent decades learning one thing that might be fairly narrow but very deep,” he says. “You learn more from them than you ever could otherwise,” he says. “Then you move on to another project that might be about early American film or something. And it’s amazing how quickly everything you knew just evaporates.”

That subtle reference to “American film” leads to a discussion of Smith’s next project — a novel about how Fort Lee, N.J., was the center of U.S. filmmaking before the rise of Hollywood.

“Starting in the mid-1890s through 1915,” Fort Lee was a booming place for cinema, he says. “There were about seven studios there,” and it was the birthplace of Universal and Fox studios.

“I’m still hacking through the weeds at the point,” Smith says of his research, but he got the idea for the novel while working on his first book about early photography and Louis Daguerre. “At that time, I learned a bit about the Lumiere brothers, and I didn’t know they had 25 concession agents they sent all over the world, showing reels of film.”

Smith says that he’s trying to reconstruct what studios were there and that Richard Koszarski’s “Fort Lee: The Film Town” has been helpful. As Northeasterners know, Fort Lee is across the Hudson River from Manhattan’s Washington Heights, and it sits on the Palisades, which has lots of cliffs. And that’s where the idea of a cliffhanger comes from. The early serials that were filmed in Fort Lee often featured a hero or heroine facing their death on those cliffs, and early films that were shot there included Thomas Edison’s “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest” (1907) and D.W. Griffith’s “The Lonely Villa” (1909), starring Mary Pickford.

“I was there a few months ago with a friend,” Smith says. “We tried to find where the studios were, but it doesn’t work exactly with Google maps. We found a giant warehouse, and we found Carl Lemley Way, the street named for the founder of Universal. All these leftovers were still there, and it was cool.”

If we’re lucky, Smith will let us read all about it in three or four years. Until then, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” is an excellent alternative.

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