The Vanishing Velázquez – Laura Cummings

Summary:

This is a very interesting premise, being based on real-life historical figures in the forms of the Spanish painter Velázquez, and John Snare, the man who effectively spent his life hunting down one of his paintings.

Main Characters:

John Snare: An unassuming Victorian bookseller and printer. He is not of the aristocracy, nor of “the right sort”, a social fact which ultimately tells against him.

Velázquez: While historic, his life remains elusive, as he left virtually no written records and, apart from a brief say in Rome, rarely left the court of his patron. His most well-known painting is probably Las Meninas.

Plot:

The story begins in 1845, when a young bookseller attends an auction, which is liquidating the contents of a shuttered Boy’s school. He spots a painting, ostensibly by the artist Van Dyck, and buys it for the princely sum of £8 (old English pounds).

Somehow, Snare (for it is he) becomes convinced that he has stumbled across the famous lost Velázquez, a portrait of the future Charles I, but then painted as the Prince of Wales. How did Charles end up in Madrid, Spain, in the early 17th Century? That is a tale in and of itself, but essentially he made a mad trip to find and win a Spanish princess as a bride. His plan was foiled, but the artist got a chance to paint him.

In brief, Snare becomes obsessed with the painting, has it cleaned and, with the paucity (then) of experienced and qualified art dealers and experts, tries to prove it is the genuine article. Velázquez paintings were rarely if ever seen outside of the imperial world of Spain at this time, so his claims initially generated much excitement, and various showings were had.

The reader is reminded of a world where reproductions of paintings etc. were few, no database or repository of knowledge existed for reference, and there were as many tricksters and con-artists then as now only more likely to get away with things.

Snare had quite some initial success with his showings, then things began to go wrong. A wealthy aristocratic family made a claim on the painting, which tied him up in legal cases, and disrupted his ability to  earn revenue from his showings. His obsessive behaviour cost him his business, his marriage and his family (to whom he consigned to penury), and ultimately his homeland, as he took the painting with him to the USA, dying there in poverty. In all his misfortune, however, he never relinquished the painting.

The painting, like Velázquez himself, then disappears into the realm of the unknown, never to be seen again.

The author, working with very few facts (especially concerning the great man himself), conjures up a world of class, snobbery, prejudice against the working and emerging middle class, and the lengths to which an obsessed person will go for his/her love. For this is a love story as well, of one man for a painting, but it was unrequited, and in the end s/he left him.

What I Liked:

  • I liked the blend of the narratives, the journey that Snare undertook, and that of the author following his footsteps.
  • The book inspired me to look up some of Velázquez’s paintings, as he was an artist with whom I was not familiar. The author clearly is, and writes with great enthusiasm of his works – maybe slightly obsessed herself???
  • The insight it gives into the often brutal Victorian social world, where the establishment stuck together, and the “great unwashed” existed only to support them. The courage of Snare to take them on is humbling to witness.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • I felt it overlong in parts, with a lot of supposition from the author. There was absolutely good reasons for this, given so few facts can be attested to, but I think could have been reduced.

Overall:

The book is a very enjoyable mix of detective story, art history, and biography. It flows well, and for me the characters were really vivid. It is a very human story, well-researched and executed. There is a lot of speculation, but overall I would recommend this as a great holiday read.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to my local library for having this book available for download.

 

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