Reviews

Fading Colors: The Vanishing Velázquez by Laura Cumming

How far would you go for something you love? How much are you willing to wager if the object of your affection is a portrait of questionable lineage—layered with centuries of grime, snatched up at a broke aristocrat’s estate sale—that you’re convinced is a lost masterpiece?

9781476762159_51eb3How far would you go for something you love? How much are you willing to wager if the object of your affection is a portrait of questionable lineage—layered with centuries of grime, snatched up at a broke aristocrat’s estate sale—that you’re convinced is a lost masterpiece? In Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece, the answer for John Snare is: a lot.

In 1845, Snare, a humble printmaker from Reading, England, bought a portrait of the doomed Charles I when he was still the young Prince of Wales. When Snare purchased it, everyone believed the painting was the work of the Flemish-born artist Anthony van Dyck, but Snare disagreed. Something about the painting convinced Snare it was actually crafted by the Spanish virtuoso of the Hapsburg court: Diego Velázquez.

Thus begins Cumming’s riveting narrative of Snare’s obsessive, ill-fated attempt to defy art experts and estate trustees to prove that the van Dyck was actually a missing Velázquez, painted in Madrid during the farcical Spanish Match in 1623, an attempt to unite the thrones of England and Spain through an arranged marriage. Cumming tells Velázquez’s story, too, writing eloquently on his style and prowess, noting his observational powers, as well as the kindness and realism he invested in his portraits, claiming, “What Velázquez painted was the truth; everyone else was just making it up.”

Another narrative emerges as Cumming searches for the truth about Snare’s downfall. Thanks to his obsession with the painting, Snare winds up destitute, abandoning his print shop and family for America after years of litigation and character assassination. Yet he never gives up the painting that causes so much grief, despite numerous generous offers to take it off his hands. Upon Snare’s death, no further trace of the presumed Velázquez exists. In the end, Cumming writes across three separate centuries (17th, 19th, 21st) on the role and importance of art, how it shapes and alters us over time:

We say that works of art can change our lives, an optimistic piety that generally refers to the moral or spiritual uplift of a painting, and the way it may improve its audience. But art has other powers to alter our existence. The moment he bought the portrait of Prince Charles, Snare’s life changed direction.

Cumming’s own life has been impacted by her appreciation of Velázquez, providing solace and comfort, linking her to Snare and the 17th-century artist. Her investigations mingle two pasts with our present, bringing us closer to the printer and the painter he adored, driving home the Faulknerian cliché as Cumming almost literally follows in Snare’s footsteps: “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

I looked where [Snare] looked, searching through the pages of old newspapers and books, through auction house records and catalogues marked up with prices and blotted with ink, handled and creased where a person from the past has shoved it in his pocket at the end of a sale, triumphant or disenchanted.

However, one of Cumming’s key illustrations is how the past’s peg rarely fits into the present’s square hole. Too much time has passed in her search for the truth, so she arrives at a number of conflicting answers that are perhaps more satisfying, in a strange way, than definite proof. Anyone who has tried to hunt down long-lost relatives through dimly recalled memories, or strived to better understand a dead loved one through writings and photographs, can confirm the roadblocks time and history present. Yet even in the absence of answers, the quest alone can be restorative, provide perspective, and convey humility.

These observations on the search for historical truth dovetail into the art of painting itself, and how easily (paradoxically) famous works can disappear. Time takes its toll, and art survives often by fingernails. Paintings can be ruined, covered up, stolen, faked, and altered, much like our own identities and histories. Yet aside from these reflections, the true strengths of The Vanishing Velázquez is how deftly Cumming approaches our need for ekphrasis, demonstrating her ability to turn the visual into the written. Perhaps the contested portrait, possibly lost forever, is the ideal kind of art to write about:

No reproductions ever existed. With the exception of those who had actually laid eyes on it, all that anyone knew of the Velázquez was expressed in words—in the recollections, and misrecollections, of fallible people, in their exaggerations, understatements and subjective emphases, in the strength or weakness of their spoken reports. And in the fragile memories and haphazard descriptions of a picture that lived only in the mind’s eye, the Velazquez was different to each and all. It was becoming a picture in words.

The Vanishing Velázquez is an exceptionally layered piece, blending history, criticism, and biography. Cumming’s writing is lush, succinct, and captures the essence of art in a medium that depends on the imagination of the reader. Even further, she explores ruin, grief, death, and how art can bridge the gaps opened by the sheer breadth of time.

NONFICTION – HISTORY, ART
The Vanishing Velazquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece by Laura Cumming
Scribner

April 12, 2016
ISBN 9781476762159

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