Monday, 4 April 2016

The vanishing man, Laura Cumming

For a long time you had to go to Spain if you wanted to see Spanish paintings. Especially paintings from the famous painter Velázques were rare outside the Prado in Madrid.

In 1845 bookseller John Snare from Reading bought a painting for eight pounds on an auction. It was said to be a portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck. Snare believed otherwise, he was sure it was painted by Velázques when Charles visited Spain when he was still the crown-prince.

It was quite a gamble for Snare to think this, he little comparison since there were not many paintings by Velázques in England and he had no modern techniques like x-rays to confirm his beliefs. He could only go on the descriptions he had from other paintings and his own intuition.

When he bought the paining, he had to prove it was a Velázques and try to figure out how this painting ended up in his possession. He did a lot of work to prove this, translating works about the painter from Spanish and visiting known paintings to compare them to his painting.

His claim became known and Snare exhibited the painting. Many were convinced he was right and it was indeed a Velázques, others still believed it was just a Van Dyck.  

And soon things went wrong for Snare, when he visited Scotland with his painting, he was accused of owning a stolen painting and he had to go to court. Finally he left England in ruins, his money and his good name gone, but he still had the painting when he came to the US. He kept on to this painting he loved so much, until the very end of his life.

Laura Cumming is an arthistorian and writes for The Guardian. She is a huge admirer of Velázques. The painter who did not paint that much, but each painting is beautiful. He never made a sketch or a study, but painted immediately on the canvas. He never forgot the people he portrayed were human beings, and not props.

Laura Cumming came upon the story of John Snare and his Velázques by accident, but she was fascinated. She wants to know if this painting could really have been a Velázques and how it could have ended up in Snare’s possession.
In The vanishing man she tells of her enquiry and also tells us in great details about Velázques, his way of painting, the visit Charles made to Spain, the artworld in the 19th century and the difficulties John Snare encountered when he tried to prove what he so firmly believed.

It is almost a detective, and it does not let you go until the very last page. Was it a Velázques or a Van Dyck, what happened to John Snare and where is the painting now? Unfortunately we do not get all the answers, some things have gone lost in the mist of time.

This book is a masterpiece. I loved the obvious admiration Laura Cumming has for Velázques and I felt so much sympathy for John Snare while I read the book. A man who loved art and who had a good eye for it, but in the end those things did not bring him much joy or luck.

The vanishing man is a must-read for everybody who enjoys art and history and who likes a good mystery. I loved it.

Published in 2016

2 comments:

  1. I love real-life art mysteries and histories. Did you ever get a chance to read Strapless by Deborah Davis about one of John Singer Sargeant's paintings? Or The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick? They're real-life art histories, too, and really good. Thanks for reviewing this one. Can't wait to get a copy of it! :)

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    1. I am so sorry it took me so long to anwer to this comment! But thank you for the tips about the other books, I have put them on my list immedately. Real-life artmysteries are the best!

      Kind regards,

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