While I was writing The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, I surrounded myself with images from the 17th century, especially paintings and engravings of the Dutch Golden Age. My Sara de Vos is a fictional artist, but I drew on the lives of Judith Leyster and Sara van Baalbergen for inspiration, the first two women painters to be admitted to a Guild of St. Luke in the Netherlands.
Although there are some three-dozen of Leyster’s paintings extant, none of Baalbergen’s work has survived (or been correctly attributed). I have had to rely on the male canon to complete the picture of that era.
Looking at these images over the course of a few years, I was reminded how little we know of Dutch Golden Age painting. By some estimates, more than 50,000 Dutch painters were at work across the 17th century but less than 1% of their work has survived. I wanted to write a novel that came out of the gaps and silences of art history.
Judith Leyster, self-portrait, early 1630s
This was, in all likelihood, the painting that Leyster used to gain admission to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. I love the way she’s turned to the viewer, as if we’ve entered her studio one afternoon and she’s welcoming us with her bright eyes and warm expression. In that disc-collar and velvet dress, she’s dressed not to paint, but for the occasion of being seen.
Judith Leyster, The Carousing Couple 1630
Although Leyster was well known as a painter during her lifetime, she quickly faded from history after her death in 1660. For the next two centuries, all her paintings would be attributed either to her husband, also a painter, or to Frans Hals. It wasn’t until a London art dealer bought The Carousing Couple in 1892 and found Leyster’s monogram beneath the violinist’s shoe that she was rediscovered.
Henrik Avercamp, Winter Landscape, 1608-1609
In dreaming up the fictional landscape of At the Edge of a Wood in my novel, I kept coming back to Avercamp’s wintry depictions. Many of his landscapes take in a wide expanse and show an entire village out for fun. This one seemed more intimate to me, something I wanted to capture in my own fictional painting. There are no known landscapes by Dutch women painters of the 17th century.
Jacobus Houbraken, Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian,, circa 1700
Although it’s often thought that Dutch women of the Golden Age held a rather circumscribed, domestic role, Merian is an outlier. Toward the end of the 17th century she left her estranged husband and took her daughter to Surinam in South America, where she sketched botanical specimens for two years. That seems audacious, even by today’s standards.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting,, 1638-1639
As a female artist, Artemisia suffered terribly during her lifetime in Italy. Scholars disagree about whether this is a true self-portrait or not. Regardless, I love the angles and the brooding light, the way her hair sweeps across her forehead. In contrast to the formality of Leyster’s portrait, this is an artist caught mid-motion.
Han van Meegeren, Woman Reading Music, 1935-1936
The infamous Dutch forger, van Meegeren, sold his fake Vermeers to Goering and the Nazis during WWII. In this painting you can see his close adherence to Vermeer’s use of light, color and line, but the face of the woman isn’t quite luminous enough. And the yellows aren’t bright enough (turns out to be a faulty pigment). I appreciate the fact that the Rijksmuseum still displays this fake as a testament to the power of imitation.
The first chapter of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos set in the 17th century features a beached whale and a painting excursion with Sara and her family. Renaissance-era Dutch were especially superstitious about beached whales, considering them to be omens from the deep. While writing about the stench and pestilence of the dying leviathan, I kept this picture pinned above my desk.
Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten, Village of Nieukoop in Winter with Child Funeral, first half of the 17th-century
When it came time to contemplate what Sara de Vos might have painted aside from At the Edge of a Wood, I turned to this haunting winter funeral scene. The procession, the skaters, the dogs and the clouds—everything feels hushed and sad.
Jan Steen, Couple in a Bedroom, 1665-1675
Just when you think you know the contours of Dutch Golden Age painting, along comes an artist like Jan Steen, with his bawdy, overtly sexual images of marriage and family hijinks. Knowing that Steen was Van Goyen’s assistant and married his employer’s daughter makes me admire the uniqueness of his voice and vision even more. He reminded me throughout the novel that the Dutch of the Golden Age were a paradox—devout drinkers and worshippers both.
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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