The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece
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“As compelling and entertaining as a detective novel” (The Economist), 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 found 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 whom the piece 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. Velázquez (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—proposed a marriage with a Spanish princess, he allowed just a few hours to sit for his portrait, and Snare believed only Velázquez could have been the artist of choice. But in making his theory public, Snare was ostracized 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 is a “brilliant” (The Atlantic) tale of mystery and detection, of tragic mishaps and mistaken identities, of class, politics, snobbery, crime, and almost farcical accident that reveals how one historic masterpiece was crafted and lost, and how far one man would go to redeem it. Laura Cumming’s book is “sumptuous...A gleaming work of someone at the peak of her craft” (The New York Times).
was appalled to have done so, considering the fragility of the surface. Canvas reacts to pressure, quivering and bouncing ever so slightly like the skin of a drum, and if the paint is as thin and fine as a Velázquez, the warp and weft may be palpable beneath one’s fingertips, an irresistible reminder that the image is transmitted on and through a piece of fabric and is as vulnerable as the material itself. Of course we are not supposed to touch paintings anymore. They have one barrier in the
be less hesitant in setting the picture—legitimately acquired, after all—before a larger public. And thus it came to be displayed, in the spring of 1847, at 21 Old Bond Street in London. This Mayfair address was the very squeak of chic, then as now, a place to be seen and spend money. It already had a long career in satire, particularly in the acid-bitten etchings of the cartoonist James Gillray, who lived about twenty yards away from what is now Chanel, in the early 1800s. Gillray hardly had to
Juana, and their daughter, Francisca; if one followed Nieto through that door, up that staircase and on through the vast labyrinth of corridors, one would eventually come to the artist’s home in the eastern flank. It was a long way; a courtier could walk miles criss-crossing the Alcázar in a working day. That this was a tightly knit family is apparent from the paintings. Velázquez’s wife, Juana, may be the woman in profile in the beautifully wistful vision of a sibyl. Francisca is thought to be
the hand is scarcely more substantial than the fabric around it, just a hint of fingers, almost notational, and the ear is nothing but an irregular red dab. Velázquez holds these outlying elements in abeyance, indistinct, because this is how they appear to our eyes in peripheral vision. The true focus is the face. That face is strong, beautiful and profoundly expressive. Some have seen vulnerability there, perhaps extrapolating from the notion of a slave required to sit for his portrait, a man
(the real Lord Grantham, though his Downton Abbey counterpart also has one in the dining room). Major Spearman in the German Section of the Foreign Office acquires one at the end of the Second World War (one wonders how), just as Herr Wilhelm Kraushaar is sending his implausible submission all the way from Berlin. Two ladies from Surrey turn up in the sixties with a photograph of their family treasure and are most politely, if sadly, undeceived. It is only a copy of a Honthorst. Van Dyck’s