When Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany. Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.
Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez. As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.
Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller. Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history. If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.
As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art. Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.
As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family. Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings. Philip IV, Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs. With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions. His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.
The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book. Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City. Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting. The big mystery, however, is never solved. Where is the painting today?
Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent descendants of Snare can be found. Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:
“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever. The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”
Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.
Related Review: The Art Forger