This is my review of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez by Laura Cumming.
Art critic Laura Cumming has a gift for helping us to appreciate paintings more fully,
She has a particular feeling for “Las Meninas”, the enigmatic masterpiece by Velasquez which mingles “the watchers and the watched”, bringing us, the onlookers into the picture: the Spanish Infanta in a group of maidservants and court dwarves make direct eye contact with us, except that they may in fact be observing the king and queen, glimpsed Arnolfini portrait-style in a background mirror, who may once have stood where we now stand, being painted by Velasquez himself, portrayed with his palette at a huge canvas to one side. His brushlike tapering fingers merging into the brush itself, “no more than a darting streak of white” – “the whole painting has been set in motion by its delicate tip, which effectively vanishes”.
Laura Cummings continually marvels at how often sketchy and thin brushwork when viewed close up, could create such fine detail of clothing with sheen of silk and transparent white collars. Faces are so expressive that they seem alive, startling us with their modernity: the portrait of the misnamed Pope Innocent X disconcerted viewers, as if they were meeting him in the flesh. Philip IV of Spain preferred not to submit to the unflinching truthfulness of Velazquez’s portraits as he grew old, but retained the court painter he had employed as a very young man, although for the last decade of his life Velasquez was promoted to High Chamberlain and seems to have produced relatively few works yet of high quality, including Las Meninas .
Although held in high regard, Velasquez was not free to travel, gaining permission for only two admittedly lengthy visits to Italy, but retained his artistic independence in the convention-ridden Spanish court. His most striking portraits are of ordinary people: the dignified water-seller, realistic drops of liquid trickling down the curved side of a ceramic pot; the old woman frying eggs in which the translucent fluid can be seen in the process of solidifying into white; the dwarves portrayed with dignity; self-assured Moorish assistant who chose to remain with Velasquez despite gaining his freedom; actor Pablo de Valladolid casting his shadow on a void which serves to focus us on his theatrical presence. Ever experimental, the painter even produced an inspiration for impressionism in the outdoor scene of the Medici Gardens, tall cypresses rising above a white cloth draped over a balconied terrace with a crudely boarded-up archway.
Since comparatively little is known about Velasquez, the book often seems padded out with overblown speculation and a detailed sub-plot regarding the obsessive efforts of Reading printer John Snare to gain recognition for the portrait he had acquired of the youthful prince destined to become Charles 1. Whether or not this is a genuine Velasquez, the tale demonstrates how the casual, inconsistent description and classification of paintings together with a lack of x-rays and other dating techniques made it so hard to attribute them accurately until well into the C20, if then. It would of course have helped if Velasquez had signed his work. It is also disturbing to read about the dealer who, having “cleaned up” a “Velasquez” to make it more attractive to a buyer, had it darkened and aged to fetch a better price to suit the tastes of a wealthy alternative bidder.
Although the colour plates are of good quality, the main weakness of a generally fascinating book is the need for more of them, and better cross-referencing with the text, even if this added a little to the price. The small black and white photographs integrated in the text do scant justice to the painter’s work. I had to make a note of some titles of paintings described at length so that I could search for their images on line.