By Laura Cum­ming, Scrib­ner/Si­mon & Schuster, 272 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Vanishing Velázquez Men­i­nas. Ob­server, Las The Men­i­nas H Is for Hawk). Las Men­i­nas Las

It is not un­com­mon today to read a book in which the au­thor seems to think right on the page. So­cial me­dia pro­motes a “let it all out” cul­ture, which, not sur­pris­ingly, per­me­ates other forms of writ­ing.

is a wel­come book in which the think­ing has been done be­fore­hand. On the page, we en­counter dis­tilled prose that is a plea­sure to read. The au­thor, Laura Cum­ming, is a sea­soned art critic, cur­rently at the U.K. and she de­liv­ers in­sights on the paint­ings of the Span­ish master Diego Velázquez with reli­able pre­ci­sion.

The book be­gins in Madrid, with Cum­ming wan­der­ing the streets and try­ing to get over her fa­ther’s death when she walks into the Prado. Here, she sees what may be the great­est of Velázquez’s sur­viv­ing paint­ings:

Cum­ming holds on hard to the bril­liance of this work, and we won­der if she will use Velázquez to get over the death of her pain­ter fa­ther (this con­struct of mem­oir writ­ing was used to ca­pac­ity by He­len Mac­don­ald in her book To Cum­ming’s credit — and our re­lief — she does not in­dulge in self­pity. In fact, she scarcely men­tions her fa­ther again.

In­stead, Cum­ming cir­cles with in­tense fo­cus around some key Velázquez paint­ings, in­clud­ing

and a por­trait of Eng­land’s Prince Charles — who later be­came Charles I — once at­trib­uted to van Dyck, but which may have been painted by Velázquez when Charles trav­eled to Spain. The por­trait leads us to one John Snare, a Bri­tish book­seller who ac­quired it at a liq­ui­da­tion auc­tion in 1845 and who then ex­hib­ited it in Lon­don and pub­lished a pam­phlet, pin­ning it down as a Velázquez, to re­sound­ing me­dia ap­proval.

Snare went on to ex­hibit the paint­ing in Scot­land as “The Lost Velázquez,” and a law­suit was promptly ini­ti­ated against him there. The trus­tees of a Scot­tish es­tate claimed that the sup­posed Velázquez had been “stolen or sur­rep­ti­tiously ab­stracted” from the aris­to­cratic Fife fam­ily. The po­lice seized the paint­ing and put it in a cel­lar in the base­ment of a court­house. Sub­se­quently, Snare’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion and per­sonal life were thrown into tur­moil. He did get his paint­ing back and coun­ter­sued for dam­ages, but his rep­u­ta­tion, in any case, was briskly ru­ined. The trou­ble was se­vere enough that he left his fam­ily be­hind and set off for New York, ac­com­pa­nied only by his beloved Velázquez paint­ing.

Cum­ming’s nar­ra­tive acu­men is such that she coaxes a com­pelling story seem­ingly out of thin air. She in­ter­sperses the events of Snare’s lit­tle-known life with a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive about Velázquez. We learn about the pain­ter’s ap­pren­tice­ship with Fran­cisco de Pacheco in Seville and his sub­se­quent ten­ure as a lead­ing artist in the court of King Philip IV, where he re­mained un­til the end of his life but for two no­table trips to Italy. On the sec­ond of these trips, Velázquez painted a por­trait of his stu­dio as­sis­tant, Juan de Pareja, a slave of Moor­ish de­scent whom Velázquez freed, but who nev­er­the­less stayed with the pain­ter. Velázquez ren­dered Pareja’s like­ness to such an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­gree that the paint­ing be­came a sen­sa­tion in Italy. Cum­ming writes in de­tail about Velázquez’s brush­strokes, how they in­ex­pli­ca­bly sum­mon up real life. She notes that his paint­ings ac­crue power be­cause the sub­jects seem to look di­rectly at us. Her voice is like a clear stream of rea­son with an un­der­cur­rent of breath­less ad­mi­ra­tion. Snare was not the only one se­duced by the elu­sive Velázquez. Cum­ming makes such a com­pelling case for Velázquez’s ge­nius that it makes you wish the Prado were your next travel des­ti­na­tion.

Cum­ming never gets so caught up in the de­tails of Snare’s story that she loses sight of the philo­soph­i­cal and crit­i­cal com­plex­ity of her nar­ra­tive. Velázquez was highly adept at bring­ing out the truth in peo­ple’s in­ner lives that later in King Philip’s life, he no longer wanted Velázquez to paint him, be­cause he did not wish to see him­self — and his past sor­rows — in such a bru­tally true mir­ror. Velázquez was no stranger to loss. A fire rav­aged his palace one Christ­mas Eve, and de­spite the ser­vants’ ef­forts, an early mas­ter­piece by Velázquez, on the ex­pul­sion of the Moors from Spain, burned. For­tu­nately for the rest of us,

sur­vived the fire. Snare ex­hib­ited his Velázquez at the Stuyvesant In­sti­tute in New York City, where it was seen by Walt Whit­man. Snare never re­turned to his na­tive Eng­land. Af­ter his death, his son showed the Velázquez briefly at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art be­fore he brought it back home to Read­ing, Eng­land. The paint­ing was ex­hib­ited at the Read­ing Art Mu­seum in 1888, af­ter which it was prob­a­bly passed down in the fam­ily, but there is no record of where it ended up. Though Snare seem­ingly aban­doned his fam­ily in Eng­land for the sake of the paint­ing, there is sur­pris­ing pathos in his story be­cause of his gen­uine attachment to the Velázquez. No one can say whether or not the paint­ing will sur­face one day. What is cer­tain, how­ever, is that Cum­ming has brought Velázquez and his work to life in a stun­ningly vivid way. The master pain­ter might have been im­pressed. — Priyanka Ku­mar

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