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