Home » “The Vanishing Velazquez” by Laura Cumming – Chasing a Real Legend

“The Vanishing Velazquez” by Laura Cumming – Chasing a Real Legend

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Laura Cumming on the Hunt

The domain of art collection and long-lost paintings is a one most of us are only familiar with through Hollywood’s on-screen dramatizations which generally revolve around well-dressed older men coming up with schemes that would put our conspiracy theorists to shame.

For most of us, rare art collection is something we couldn’t be further removed from, seeing it as something reserved exclusively for the rich and powerful who have the means to acquire and the spare time to appreciate the works.

Long story short, on the surface it’s the kind of occupation that could only possibly cater to the upper crust of society, but digging deeper only unearths more and more interesting stories that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their wealth or position in society… stories like that of the missing Diego Velazquez painting of King Charles I.

To give you a bit of background on this whole thing, in The Vanishing Velazquez Laura Cumming takes us on a historical trip that begins back in early 1600s Spain, teetering on the edge of collapse. Fortunately, the then-young Prince Charles of England decided to propose to a Spanish princess, potentially creating a connection between the two countries that could serve as a great boon.

It is said that when Prince Charles arrived at the court in Madrid he only sat down for a few hours to have his portrait painted, and a man by the name of John Snare was convinced that the court painter, Velazquez, is the only one who could have been chosen for the task.

Unfortunately, the painting had been lost for generations when Snare had stumbled upon it in a liquidation auction that took place in the 19th century. From that moment onwards, his entire work and life had started to become consumed by his obsession with the painting, his drive to prove that he did indeed have the real thing on his hands.

A Mystery from the Realm of Non-Fiction

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and the case of this painting might certainly lend some credence to that. As you might already have guessed at this stage, this book is more than just a chase after a piece of expensive tapestry or something of the sort. Rather, it seems that Laura Cumming uses the context of the painting and all it had traversed to explore the people which surrounded it and the mysteries they were embroiled in.

As a result, she creates a very compelling mystery that keeps you wondering what could have possibly happened to the painting for it to have changed hands and traversed the years the way it has. In terms of how captivating and entertaining the book is, I have to say that save for a few dull moments of exposition and superfluous information the story managed to easily retain my interest, with almost every passage having something interesting to reveal, whether it’s big or small.

I will say that you have to be the kind of person who enjoys listing through the pages of history and learning of intrigues that occurred too long ago to have any meaningful effects today.

If you don’t exactly take pleasure in diving through the past and combing over all the unheard and hidden stories lost to time, then I believe you will have a harder time enjoying The Vanishing Velazquez; it will simply feel like certain passages aren’t focusing on the few things you find interesting.

Then again, considering you’re looking into this book, it’s fair to assume that you have at least a positive predisposition towards historical education, so that shouldn’t be much of a problem.

An Unexpected Roller-Coaster

While Cumming takes the time to teach about art, the painting itself and the people of the court who have touched or influenced the painting’s course through time, she goes above and beyond that, diving specifically into how John Snare’s discovery affected his life and uses it to illustrate some very poignant thoughts about the relationship between artists, collectors and the art they create or covet.

We get to learn about the very real implications of the dogged pursuit of art and rare collections, how passion can easily turn into obsession, pushing otherwise-balanced and reasonable people over the edge into crime and shady politics… and how far some will go to redeem that which has been lost.

Bookwormex - “The Vanishing Velazquez” by Laura Cumming (Book cover)

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PAGESPUBLISHERPUB. DATEISBN
320ScribnerNov. 8 2016978-1476762180

The plot definitely takes us to some very unexpected places, so I’ll simply say that the world of art collection and study is much more brutal and unforgiving than you probably imagine it. It’s a revealing work in its study of art’s seedy underside and the people revolving around it, one that masterfully plays on your expectations and imparts knowledge you will retain for a long time.

Last Remarks

To cap things off, The Vanishing Velazquez is a book meant for art and history aficionados, detailing a true, amazing and incredible story revolving around what could have once been described as the great white buffalo of paintings.

While a few of the segments may be a bit dull, the rest of the book more than makes up for them, combining a compelling mystery, interesting characters, tons of juicy information on the realm of art collection, and even some meditations on our relation to art. It’s a book I highly recommend to anyone who finds this genre appealing.



Laura Cumming (Author)

Laura Cumming

 Laura Cumming is a writer, journalist and art critic for The Observer. She has served as a literary editor of the BBC’s The Listener and was the presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

The two books on art she has written have been received with considerable praise, the most notable one being The Vanishing Velazquez, chronicling the discovery of a lost portrait of the titular Diego Velazquez by John Snare.

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