STARRED REVIEW
April 12, 2016

A painting that became an obsession

By Laura Cumming
The sense that something purchased cheaply at an auction may turn out to be priceless treasure did not originate with “Antiques Roadshow.” Consider the case of John Snare, an English bookseller who picked up a painting of King Charles I that raised more questions than he could readily answer. The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece merges history and mystery, obsession and deception, yet views the works in question with a clear and illuminating eye.
Share this Article:

The sense that something purchased cheaply at an auction may turn out to be priceless treasure did not originate with “Antiques Roadshow.” Consider the case of John Snare, an English bookseller who picked up a painting of King Charles I that raised more questions than he could readily answer. The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece merges history and mystery, obsession and deception, yet views the works in question with a clear and illuminating eye.

Author and Observer art critic Laura Cumming (A Face to the World) traces Snare's lifelong obsession with and devotion to his painting, which he believed to be the work of Diego Velázquez, and which ultimately led him to ruin before he was able to definitively confirm its provenance. Snare was alternately derided as a lunatic and thought of as a visionary, and the painting changes hands so many times it can be hard for readers to keep track of its whereabouts.

Cumming also sketches the artist's life and work—Velázquez is notable for a tender and affectionate view of his subjects—in language that brings each portrait to life. Though Velázquez is compared to Shakespeare because so little is known of his actual life, Cumming finds that we are able to deduce much from the artist’s subject matter and the way he portrayed himself, "to know (him) through his work."

While Snare and Velázquez are both somewhat hard to trace, the details unearthed here are rich ones; Snare's bookshop and printing business are vividly evoked, and his journey to America and time in New York's burgeoning art world are a bold adventure. Still, we are left to wonder, what of the family he left behind? The Vanishing Velázquez offers a penetrating look at art and the lengths to which it can move the human heart.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

The Vanishing Velázquez

The Vanishing Velázquez

By Laura Cumming
Scribner
ISBN 9781476762159

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!