NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A Wall Street Journal Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2016
“As compelling and entertaining as a detective novel” (The Economist), the incredible true story—part art history and part mystery—of a Velázquez portrait that went missing and the obsessed nineteenth-century bookseller determined to prove he had found it.
When John Snare, a nineteenth century provincial bookseller, traveled to a liquidation auction, he found a vivid portrait of King Charles I that defied any explanation. The Charles of the painting was young—too young to be king—and yet also too young to be painted by the Flemish painter to whom the piece was attributed. Snare had found something incredible—but what?
His research brought him to Diego Velázquez, whose long-lost portrait of Prince Charles has eluded art experts for generations. Velázquez (1599–1660) was the official painter of the Madrid court, during the time the Spanish Empire teetered on the edge of collapse. When Prince Charles of England—a man wealthy enough to help turn Spain’s fortunes—proposed a marriage with a Spanish princess, he allowed just a few hours to sit for his portrait, and Snare believed only Velázquez could have been the artist of choice. But in making his theory public, Snare was ostracized and forced to choose, like Velázquez himself, between art and family.
A thrilling investigation into the complex meaning of authenticity and the unshakable determination that drives both artists and collectors of their work, The Vanishing Velázquez is a “brilliant” (The Atlantic) tale of mystery and detection, of tragic mishaps and mistaken identities, of class, politics, snobbery, crime, and almost farcical accident that reveals how one historic masterpiece was crafted and lost, and how far one man would go to redeem it. Laura Cumming’s book is “sumptuous...A gleaming work of someone at the peak of her craft” (The New York Times).
Hapless Victorians, bizarro royal courts, and incisive art criticism all feature prominently in Cumming's (A Face to the World) lively account of a small-time bookseller who acquired a portrait of King Charles I of England and made it his lifelong mission to determine who painted it. After purchasing the painting at liquidation auction in 1845, the bookseller, John Snare, develops a complex theory that the portrait, despite being credited to a famous Flemish painter, is actually the work of Diego Vel zquez, the 17th-century Spanish artist. Snare begins to publicize his theory through an exhibit at his shop and then at a hotel in Edinburgh, where the painting subsequently seized and declared stolen property. An absurd trial concerning the authorship and ownership of the painting ensues; meanwhile, the bankrupt bookseller abandons his family and flees America with his treasure in hand. Alongside the main story, Cumming describes Vel zquez's life, the "spectacle" of his career as a court painter, and the remarkable evolution of his work. Cumming peppers the narrative with vivid descriptions of art, referring to the "spellbinding vision" and "compelling humanity" of Vel zquez's empathetic depictions of the court dwarves, for example. Snare's story is noteworthy, but it is Cumming's spirited and clever narration that makes this enigma utterly engrossing.
I love history but can never wrap my head around books relating to art. Cummings weaves a wonderful narrative between the two: interspersing her love of art throughout a fascinating detective story set across five centuries and three entirely different time periods. The only common thread - the great master Velazquez and his incredible visual and artistic gifts. Probably the only book about art I'll ever read in my life but I am so glad I did!!