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Reviews of The Vanishing Velazquez by Laura Cumming

The Vanishing Velazquez

A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece

by Laura Cumming

The Vanishing Velazquez by Laura Cumming X
The Vanishing Velazquez by Laura Cumming
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 304 pages

    Nov 2016, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

From one of the world's most expert art critics, 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 stumbled on 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 which the work 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. Velazquez (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 - ventured to the court to propose a marriage with a Spanish princess, he allowed just a few hours to sit for his portrait. Snare believed only Velázquez could have met this challenge. But in making his theory public, Snare was ostracized, victim to aristocrats and critics who accused him of fraud, 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 travels from extravagant Spanish courts in the 1700s to the gritty courtrooms and auction houses of nineteenth-century London and New York. But it is above all a tale of mystery and detection, of tragic mishaps and mistaken identities, of class, politics, snobbery, crime, and almost farcical accident. It is a magnificently crafted page-turner, a testimony to how and why great works of art can affect us to the point of obsession.

The Vanishing Velázquez

We see paintings in time and place (no picture makes this clearer, putting us on the spot and in the moment) and always in the context of our own lives. We cannot see them otherwise, no matter how objective we might hope to be. Novelists long ago recognized this truth; literature is full of characters falling in love with the people in paintings, obsessing over enigmatic figures or shapes, feeling intimidated—or intensely disappointed, in the case of Madame Bovary—by their first sighting of a tarry Old Master. Fictional people are allowed to have feelings about art entirely unconnected with the analysis of formal attributes, still less any knowledge of art history. But this is not how the rest of us are encouraged to view art by specialists and historians, for whom feelings may be dubious, unstable or irrelevant. If one should happen to experience an involuntary personal response, an eminent art historian once advised me, as if mentioning ...

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BookBrowse Review


Cumming writes an absorbing, quick-paced book that many non-fiction readers will enjoy. One needn't be an art aficionado to appreciate it. I found it similar to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City from the standpoint that the author transforms a little-known subject into one that is endlessly entertaining...continued

Full Review (875 words)

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

The Guardian (UK)
Laura Cumming twists several genres around her supple fingers in order to tell the extraordinary story ... you put down The Vanishing Velazquez not quite sure how Cumming has been able to bring off this particular magic trick, but happy and grateful that she has.

The Spectator (UK)
An extraordinary story... This terrific book is many things, a study in obsession, a paean of praise to an artist of genius, a detective story and, for the author, an exorcism of grief.

The Sunday Times (UK)
In this superb and original book, Cumming interweaves the gripping story of Snare with that of Diego Velázquez himself, painting at the court in Madrid in the 17th century. S ... This enthralling book is about what it means to create art so luminous that others would fight just to get close to it.

The Economist (UK)
As compelling and entertaining as a detective novel, this is an engaging book... Ms Cumming paints a beguiling picture of lives lived for art.

The Independent (UK)
Interwoven into the narrative of Snare's tribulations, and of beautifully compelling accounts of Velázquez's paintings, are moving snippets of biography that reveal Cumming's own relationship to the great Spanish master.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. As fascinated as Snare with the portrait, Cumming has fashioned an absorbing mystery.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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.

Author Blurb Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn and Nora Webster
The Vanishing Velazquez is a riveting detective story and a brilliant reconstruction of an art controversy, but it is also a homage to the art of Velazquez, written by a critic who remains spellbound by his genius, as readers will be spellbound by this book.

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Beyond the Book

Diego Velázquez's Contemporaries

Diego Velázquez (1599 - 1660) was a painter in the court of Spain's Philip IV during the Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro), a period influenced by the Italian Renaissance, during which the arts flourished throughout the country. The exact dates of the Spanish Golden Age vary by commentator, but it began no earlier than 1492 with Columbus's discovery of the New World, and ended no later than 1681 with the death of author Pedro Calderon de la Barca. The movement encompassed literature, including poetry, plays and novels, music, sculpture, painting and architecture.

Some of Velázquez's contemporaries who were active during the time are:

El Greco (1541 – 1614)

El Greco's Portrait Of A Man El Greco means "The Greek" in Spanish, reflecting his ...

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