The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece

Laura Cumming. Scribner, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4767-6215-9
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 Velázquez, 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 Velázquez’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 Velázquez’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. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/2016
Release date: 04/12/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 320 pages - 978-1-4767-6216-6
Downloadable Audio - 978-1-5082-2292-7
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-1-4767-6218-0
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