The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece

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The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece

About the Author: 

Laura Cumming has been the art critic of the Observer since 1999. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman magazine, literary editor of the Listener, and deputy editor of Literary Review. She is a former columnist for the Herald and has contributed to the London Evening Standard, the Guardian, L’Express and Vogue. Her book A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits was widely reviewed to critical acclaim.

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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.

  • Paperback
  • 320 pages
  • 5 1/2" x 4/5" x 8 2/5"
  • Scribner, 2016
  • ISBN-10: 147676218X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1476762180
Editorial Reviews
"A sumptuous, impressively erudite effort by Laura Cumming, the art critic at the Observer, in London, to retrace Snare’s attempts to determine the painting’s elusive pedigree. But it’s a good deal more than that. The book is a pair of biographies (Snare, Velázquez), a series of critical essays, a history of King Philip’s IV court, a cold-case mystery, a courtroom drama, an adventure story, a travelogue, a floor wax, a dessert topping. Whatever it is, it’s extremely accomplished — a gleaming work of someone at the peak of her craft." -Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

“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.” -Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn and Nora Webster/

"Laura Cumming twists several genres around her supple fingers in order to tell the extraordinary story of how Snare fell under the spell of a painting and sacrificed everything – prosperity, reputation, a respectable death surrounded by loving family – so that he might live with it like a lover... Then there’s the detective story, which gusts the plot along at a cracking pace... Cumming pulls us so deeply into the painter’s world that it seems as if we can feel the breath of his subjects on our cheeks, and see the sheeny sweat on their brows... Cumming brings these worlds together with exactly the kind of ease that made Velázquez the subject of such envy in his own time, indeed in all times... In the same way, 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." -Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

"Hapless Victorians, bizarro royal courts, and incisive art criticism all feature prominently in Cumming's lively account... It is Cumming’s spirited and clever narration that makes this enigma utterly engrossing.” -Publishers Weekly, starred review

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