Captain Ahab had Moby-Dick, bookseller John Snare had a lost portrait by Velazquez that he was determined to have legitimized. In both cases the obsession eventually consumed the obsessed. In this detailed investigation, The Vanishing Velazquez, Laura Cumming, art critic of London’s Observer, takes up the bookseller’s cri de coeur and in so doing presents a compelling portrait of the art, the artist and the passionate admirer.
MY FATHER DIED quite suddenly when I was in my late twenties. He was a painter. The fatal illness attacked his brain, then his eyes. In my raging grief, I could not bear to look at any paintings but his, as a way of holding the memory of him as close and tight as possible, I suppose, and in blind protest against the blighting of his life and art.
Several months passed. I went to Madrid in a bitter midwinter, a city chosen because neither he nor I had ever been there and I couldn’t speak the language. There would be no old associations and no new conversations; time could stand still while I thought about nothing and no one but him. Every day I would leave my hotel room and walk round and round the streets, spiraling out to the freezing suburbs and the snowcapped hills beyond. I did not know what else to do.
But Madrid is not large; I would pass the Prado Museum time and again, sometimes twice in one day, steeling myself not to go in. Eventually the effort to avoid the place became a distraction in itself and it was there, in that crowded city within a city, that I had the luckiest of strikes. On a hunt for El Greco, one of my father’s favorite painters, I was passing the opening to a large gallery when a strange frisson of light caught the edge of my eye. As I turned to look, all the people standing at the other end of the gallery suddenly moved aside as one, clearing an open view to the source of that light: Velázquez’s monumental Las Meninas. I had no thought of it, no idea it would be there or how vast it would be—an image the size of life, and fully as profound. The living people revealed the painted people behind them like actors in the same performance, and flashing up before me was the mirror-bright vision of a little princess, her young maidservants and the artist himself, all gathered in a pool of sunlight at the bottom of a great volume of shadow, an impending darkness that instantly sets the tenor of the scene. The moment you set eyes on them, you know that these beautiful children will die, that they are already dead and gone, and yet they live in the here and now of this moment,
brief and bright as fireflies beneath the sepulchral gloom. And what keeps them here, what keeps them alive, or so the artist implies, is not just the painting but you.
You are here, you have appeared: that is the split-second revelation in their eyes, all these people looking back at you from their side of the room. The princess in her shimmering dress, the maids in their ribbons and bows, the tiny page and the tall, dark painter, the nun whose murmur is just fading away and the chamberlain silhouetted in the glowing doorway at the back: everyone registers your presence. They were here like guests at a surprise party waiting for your arrival and now you have entered the room—their room, not the real one around you—or so it mysteriously seems. The whole scene twinkles with expectation. That is the first sensation on the threshold of that gallery in the Prado where Las Meninas hangs: that you have walked into their world and become suddenly as present to them as they are to you.
The image holds you there, stopped in surprise, motionless as the moment it represents in which all these people pause too, except the little page nudging the stoic dog. Everything is still except for the circumambient air and the light fluttering across the white-blond hair of the princess, who stares at you with the candid curiosity of a child at the center of a painting that is itself so completely attentive. The dwarf gives you her frank consideration, hand on heart, the maids kneel or curtsy, the servants observe you, all the way to the man in black hovering on the threshold of this room, waiting to usher you into the next. And from behind the back of the great canvas on which he is working, the size of this one, steps the painter himself, taciturn, watchful, the magician momentarily revealed.
But take a few steps towards this painting in all its astounding veracity and the vision swithers. The princess’s lustrous hair begins to look like a mirage, or a heatwave scintillating above a summer road that vanishes at your approach. The face of the lady dwarf dissolves into illegible brushstrokes. The figures in the background become inchoate at point-blank range and you can no longer see where a hand stops and the tray it is holding begins. The nearer you get to the painting, the more these sem- blances of reality start to disappear, to the point where it is impossible to fathom how the image could have been made in the first place. Everything is on the verge of dissolution and yet so vividly present that the sunshine in the painting seems to float free and drift out into the gallery. It is the most spellbinding vision in art.
Las Meninas—The Maidservants—was most likely painted in 1656, four years before Velázquez’s own sudden death. It shows a chamber of the royal Alcázar palace in Madrid that is also long gone, destroyed in two days by a fire. This was the very room in which the picture was first shown: only imagine how perfectly the illusion must have merged with the reality when it hung there, the two sides of the chamber, real and depicted, presumably appearing seamlessly connected. To walk in and find these people waiting there must have been astonishing—like entering a dream, or a flickering projection of life quite unimaginable before the invention of cinema—for it still amazes today. Velázquez keeps this vanished circle before us like the moment’s reflection in a mirror, and his painting has the characteristics of a mirror, too: look into it and you are seen in return. Many paint- ings have the scene-shifting power to take us to another time and place but this one goes further, creating the illusion that the people you see are equally aware of your presence, that their scene is fulfilled by you. Velázquez invents a new kind of art: the painting as living theater, a performance that extends out into our world and gives a part to each and every one of us, embracing every single viewer. For anyone who stands before Las Meninas now, held fast by the eyes of these lost children and servants, is positioned exactly where the people of the past once stood. This is part of the picture’s content. It elects you to the company of all who have ever seen it, from the little princess and her maids, who must have rushed around to see themselves the moment Velázquez finished, to the king and queen who appear in miniature in that glimmering mirror at the back. We stand where they once stood, the mirror implies (and the servants’ eyes), looking into this scene, this moment held intact down the centuries. The picture turns the world upside down, so that citizens may take the place of kings, and kings may be tiny compared to children. We stand together in history and Las Meninas gathers us all into its boundless democracy.
The painting I saw that day seems to hold death back from the brink even as it acknowledges our shared human fate. It shows the past in all its mortal beauty, but it also looks forward into the flowing future. Because of Velázquez, these long-lost people will always be there at the heart of the Prado, always waiting for us to arrive; they will never go away, as long as we are there to hold them in sight. Las Meninas is like a chamber of the mind, a place where the dead will never die. The gratitude I feel to Velázquez for this greatest of paintings is untold; he gave me the consolation to return to my own life.
We see paintings in time and place (no picture makes this clearer, putting us on the spot and in the moment) and always in the context of our own lives. We cannot see them otherwise, no matter how objective we might hope to be. Novelists long ago recognized this truth; literature is full of characters falling in love with the people in paintings, obsessing over enigmatic figures or shapes, feeling intimidated—or intensely disappointed, in the case of Madame Bovary—by their first sighting of a tarry Old Master. Fictional people are allowed to have feelings about art entirely unconnected with the analysis of formal attributes, still less any knowledge of art history. But this is not how the rest of us are encouraged to view art by specialists and historians, for whom feelings may be dubious, unstable or irrelevant. If one should happen to experience an involuntary personal response, an eminent art historian once advised me, as if mentioning some embarrassing arousal, one should always keep it firmly to oneself.
Over time, many scholars have written about the mysteries of Las Meninas: who or what Velázquez might be painting on that huge canvas—is it the king and queen, is it this very painting—who the painter is looking at, what the mirror reflects, what is happening in the picture, how it was constructed. Architects have made scale models of the room in an attempt to “solve” these puzzles through perspective, although the painting does not itself abide by those laws. Physicists have experimented with mirrors and light to comprehend the paradoxes. Art historians have attempted to deduce, stroke by stroke, how on earth the illusion was achieved. The philosopher Michel Foucault, in an essay in Les mots et les choses, with its famous conclusion that Las Meninas is nothing less (and perhaps nothing more, for him) than “the representation of Classical representation,” inaugurated whole schools of theoretical interpretation.
But the compelling humanity of Velázquez’s vision is ignored. Some historians actually believe he was only talking to himself or his employer, Philip IV, the little king in the mirror, so that all the beautiful open-ended complexities that have enthralled viewers down the centuries are either our mistaken fantasy or a closed conversation between two Spanish men. Yet Las Meninas is living proof of the opposite, that when painters make images they do not do so in some kind of austere isolation or without hope of an audience beyond the studio. For this painting accepts as many interpretations as there are viewers, and part of its grace lies in allowing all these different responses to coexist, no matter how contradictory, by being such a precise vision of reality and yet so open a mystery. Velázquez is able to make you, and all before and after you, feel as alive to these people as they are to you; everyone sees, everyone is seen. The knowledge that this is all achieved by brushstrokes, that these are only painted figments, does not weaken the illusion so much as deepen the enchantment. The whole surface of Las Meninas feels alive to our presence.
This is at least as central to the technical feat of the painting as it is to our personal response, and still it goes unmentioned. There seems to be some collective recoil from the idea that art might actually overwhelm, distress or enchant us, might inspire wonder, anger, compassion or tears, that it might raise us up as a Shakespeare tragedy raises its audience. Even quite fundamental emotions are not in the language of scholarship, let alone museums, which rarely speak of the heart in connection with art. Yet so many people have loved Las Meninas.
I believe this response is too often overlooked, even though it is clear that painters do not make pictures without some hope of reaching more than our eyes. Since art history does not concern itself much with the power of images to move or affect us, I went looking for other people’s reactions to art down the years in the literature of our daily existence. And it was here, among the memoirs, diaries and letters that tell of our encounters with art, that I came upon the strange case of this lucky—or unlucky—provincial tradesman, as he describes himself, and his love for a long-lost Velázquez.
Or rather, in the drowsy shadows of a library in winter, I came upon a curious Victorian pamphlet stitched into a leather-bound miscellany between a quaint history of the Hawaiian Islands and a collection of short stories ominously titled Fact and Fiction. If the owner of this particular volume, a London lawyer with an elaborate Ex Libris plate, hadn’t underlined the words “A Brief Description of the Portrait of Prince Charles, afterwards Charles the First, painted at Madrid in 1623 by Velasquez” in heavy ink on the contents page, I might not have noticed it. By such accidents are the traces of people, and pictures, preserved. The pamphlet was anonymous, but someone, presumably the lawyer, had hazarded a name: J. Snare? John Snare? The guess turned out to be right.
John Snare was a bookseller from the market town of Reading in Berkshire. His shop was at 16 Minster Street, the same address as the printer of the pamphlet, which he had evidently written and published himself. Snare describes the portrait quite clearly: it shows the young prince with his large liquid eyes and pale complexion, painted without rigidity or outline in an airy three-quarter view. Although the language is occasionally florid—he speaks of manliness and silken locks—for a moment, in the fug of the library at dusk, I seemed to think I had some inkling of this painting, which is commonly mentioned by historians as the one good thing to come out of Charles’s visit to Madrid to court the Spanish princess in 1623. In my mind I saw the young Charles, who had entirely failed to charm the disdainful infanta, given a better face by Velázquez, his dignity restored to the point of grace.
Overnight, however, I began to doubt the description so much that I returned the next day to see if I had misread the pamphlet and dreamed fiction into fact. But John Snare and his story turned out to be real.
The pamphlet was in fact a miniature catalogue for a one-picture show held in London to high acclaim in the spring of 1847. But how did Snare come to be its curator, and how did he discover the lost painting in the first place? It wasn’t hard to find answers to these obvious questions to begin with; but then the case turned into a deeper mystery.
Snare’s feeling for Velázquez touched me. He did not see the painting as a thing apart, remote from his own existence; it filled his mind as if it were a living being. He wrote another pamphlet, and then another, in the hope that others would feel for it, too. His obsession with discovering a past for the portrait eventually turned him into a detective and sent me on a search of my own.
For the art of Velázquez was rare, unfamiliar, obscure. He left so few paintings—not more than 120 over a forty-year career—it is rightly said that he measured out his genius in thimblefuls. Almost all of his work was painted for the Spanish king and court and stayed exactly where it was made, long after his death, immured in the royal palaces. Even when the Prado first opened to the public in 1819, with the revelation of more than forty paintings by Velázquez, only the well-heeled traveler could have the slightest sense of his work that is so freely available to us today. Photography did not yet exist, prints were precious few and could scarcely convey his mysterious and diaphanous style, so that the only way a Velázquez could be kept in mind was through the fantastic vagaries of memory.
No two Victorians would remember the portrait at the heart of this case in quite the same way.
This was a time before paintings tended to have titles by which their subjects could be identified, and were often wildly misunderstood as a consequence; when it was hard to tell one anonymous sitter from another beneath the filth of old canvases; when paintings were easily mislabeled and signatures misread or slyly added by dealers, when genuine masterpieces could languish overlooked while pathetic imitations were exorbitantly prized.
It was a time of grand houses full of dirt-blackened pictures, auctioneers hovering eagerly in the wings; of visitors paying to see a traveling stunner in the Egyptian Hall in London or the Pantheon in New York; when middlemen worked their way through the villas and courts of Europe sending back masterpieces sight unseen, while restorers primped up, or simply copied, old canvases, when a picture might be “identified” as a Velázquez just because it included a dark-eyed man with a Spanish goatee or an especially expressive mongrel.
Some people knew Velázquez chiefly as a painter of dogs.
By the early nineteenth century some of the paintings that had been locked away in Spain began to appear across Europe in the wake of the Peninsular War of 1808–14, in which British troops helped free Spain and Portugal from Napoleonic occupation. Works by Velázquez turned up on battlefields, in soldiers’ baggage and in the hands of go-betweens engaging in suspect acts of diplomacy, like a hoard of bright treasures suddenly emerging out of plowed soil. They did not pass straight into the hands of specialists as they would now, to be examined for every iota of evidence, but cropped up at auctions and postmortem picture sales, in people’s private houses and bequests, often quite randomly and without fanfare, occasionally disappearing straight back into the darkness. Every new discovery fanned the growing craze for Velázquez.
In all this flux and confusion, people did not always know what they were looking at, still less what they were buying or selling. In England, Earl Spencer of Althorp had a painting of a bagpipe player that he thought was by Velázquez. In Scotland, the Earl of Elgin had a white poodle sniffing a bone. In rural Dorset, an English politician believed he had nothing less than the original version of Las Meninas, rather smaller and admittedly lacking some of the crucial details, but nonetheless the pride of his collection, if not England itself. Even today, some scholars believe he was right.
For two centuries and more it has been confidently predicted that the small sum of Velázquez’s art would never increase, that no more paintings by him would now be found, that any lost paintings were permanently lost. But this has never been true. His pictures really have turned up again, tumbled in the tide of history, one by one, discovered in the most unlikely places: in Latin America; in an English seaside town; hiding in plain view on the walls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum in the twenty- first century.
For Velázquez’s portraits, so miraculously empathetic and precise, so unmistakable and inimitable, as it seems, keep on being mistaken and overlooked. Perhaps something in his exceptionally enigmatic way of painting has veiled these works; something in their mystery and modesty—from the self-effacing brushwork to the absence of a signature—has obscured them. They depend upon the kindness of strangers to an unusual degree; they need people to find and to save them.
Las Meninas presents the most famous piece of canvas in art: the blank back of the enormous picture on which the artist is working; it is the obverse of a painting, literally, but such a beautiful depiction of that vast stretch of cloth tacked to the stretcher. What Velázquez shows is the curious double nature of paintings: that they are objects as well as images; objects that are propped up and lugged about and screwed to high walls, that suffer calamity and misadventure, shipwreck and fire, that may be arbitrarily sacrificed to disaster or rescued by providence, bought and sold, crated up and transported, lost and found and sometimes even lost again.
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. It was a lost work, disregarded, on its way to the oblivion from which he saved it in 1845. It was an object that he would be forced to defend from danger and theft, that took him from small-town provincial life to the most fashionable streets of London and New York, and from obscurity to newspaper fame; a painting he would take with him wherever he went, that came to mean more to him than anything in the world, more than his family, his home and himself, that would lead to exile, a lonely death in a cold-water tenement and an unmarked grave in New York: the painting that would ruin his life.
Whatever one may come to think of John Snare in this book—and I came to question his motives, at times—his sincerity is never in doubt. He loved the art of Velázquez, at least the precious little he was ever able to see of it during his lifetime. He and I have stood in the same few places in England, amazed in front of the same few paintings in different centuries. If only he had lived in another era, he, too, might have been able to see Las Meninas.
This is a book of praise for Velázquez, greatest of painters, a man whose life is almost as elusive as his art; and it is the portrait of an obscure Victorian who loved that art, in so far as I can bring Snare back out of the darkness. For he is to me like one of the figures in Las Meninas—the servant on the far edge by the window, the only person in that masterpiece about whom nothing is known, whose story is never told and who is all but a painted blur, vanishing into the shadows.
Excerpted from The Vanishing Velazquez by Laura Cumming. Copyright © 2016 by Laura Cumming. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.