A 19th-Century Bookseller’s Obsession With a Lost Masterpiece

A short review of Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Velázquez

If you’ve never had the chance to stand in front of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas at the Prado museum in Madrid, Laura Cumming’s brilliant tribute to the painter will make you yearn to. A British journalist and critic, she credits him with inventing a new kind of art: “the painting as living theatre,” with a rare power to pull viewers into the scene. The little princess with her maidservants, the dwarf, the artist at his vast canvas—the figures in Las Meninas gaze back at you, creating the sensation that you’ve “become suddenly as present to them as they are to you.” Grieving for her father when she first fell under the painting’s spell, Cumming found “a place where the dead will never die.”


She went on to discover a fellow Velázquez fan, one whose ill-fated obsession lends shadow and suspense to her hymn of praise. In 1846, John Snare, a provincial British bookseller and self-taught art connoisseur, set out on a quest: to prove that a portrait of England’s Charles I as a prince, which he had bought for next to nothing and loved more than anything, was a long-lost Velázquez painting. Cumming traces poor Snare’s ordeals among the covetous and the incredulous, exploring the secrets of Velázquez’s genius as she goes. Her pages pulse with the power of art to change lives.