The Vanishing Velázquez by Laura Cumming

I love good art books and I love good true crime and that’s how Cumming’s book was hyped.  Unfortunately,  the reality is not quite what I expected.   It is nicely written although a bit too poetic and emotional  for my tastes and ends up being a lot of style over substance in some places.  There’s lots biographical material on both the painter Diego Velasquez (b. 1599 – Spain)  and a bookseller named John Snare (b. 1811 – England).  I really think it could have been covered in about 200 pages skipping Cumming’s opinions and conjectures – especially toward the end. But Cumming is totally smitten with the subject and her words.

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The Vanishing Velazquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece. 
by Laura Cumming
2016 / 305 pages
read by Siobahn Redmond – 10h 15m
rating 7 /  art history 
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Velasquez was an incredible painter,  his Las Meninas(1656) has been a very popular favorite for a long time. But he painted many,  many other works.  He was brilliant and important.  And Cumming says he developed a new way of painting.   (Maybe he did – ?)

A 19th century British bookseller, John Snare,  found a painting at an auction in London and had a hunch as to what it was – a Velazquez – and no one else seemed to know or care.  Snare went to much trouble, both  financial and legal which is described all through the book,  to keep or regain Velazquez’  portrait of Charles I,  and while others validated his assessment,  it was also regularly challenged as a painting of Anthony Van Dyck,  another painter of the Spanish and English aristocracy during that time, or someone else.

What Velazquez did was to paint some subjects as though they are looking at the viewer. He also had a talent for paining fast and using a style which blurs the edges.  What Snare did was find, identify and  fall in love with a Velazquez portrait of the young Charles I – to the point detriment of his finances, family, home and reputation.

Snare (and Cummins)  are “looking at a single work of art with the power to affect the viewer as a person or a poem might.”   It’s an emotional thing.   Meanwhile,  art historians like Stirling Maxwell, are and were somewhat contemptuous of this viewer-response idea.  and they put more emphasis on the history and pedigree.  This was important in determining if the painting was indeed a Velazquez.

Velasquez uses the same characters/subjects over and over and that’s a clue to identifying a Velazquez according to Cumming.   She also says that there is a basic emotional understanding one has to consider – what the painting is saying to the individual viewer.   I guess this is “If it makes you feel like it’s a Velazquez,  then it is a Velazquez.”

And when Snare’s painting is finally is determined to be a Velazquez the question becomes  whose Velazquez is it?  –  And then – is it valuable?  –  The courtroom drama goes on.

There is a lot of what seems to be irrelevant information here – theater productions,  court rituals,  the subjects, but it all comes together.  Cumming is nowhere near as digressive as Simon Schama though – so that’s a point.

I’m especially miffed because towards the end she scolds viewers who see the mirror reflecting the couple which the painter is painting.  In doing that she drags up a lot of other assumptions about what we see or don’t see – many not necessarily true.

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Las Meninas larger image at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas