how Velázquez gave me consolation in grief – and set me on the trail of a lost portrait
Source:theguardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2016-01-12 Size:
My father died quite suddenly when I was in my late 20s. He was a painter. The fatal illness attacked his brain and then his eyes……

‘Electrified’: Laura Cumming in front of Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man at Apsley House, London.

My father died quite suddenly when I was in my late 20s. He was a painter. The fatal illness attacked his brain and 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 winter, 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 and walk round the streets, spiralling out to the freezing suburbs and the snow-capped hills beyond. I did not know what else to do.

But Madrid is not large; I would pass the Prado time and again, steeling myself not to go in. Eventually the effort became a distraction in itself and it was there, in that crowded city within a city, that I had the luckiest of strikes. In search of my father’s favourite Spanish painter, El Greco, 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, a tour party suddenly moved aside, revealing the source of that light: Velázquez’s monumental Las Meninas. I had 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 a little princess, her young maidservants and the artist himself, all gathered in a pool of sunlight below a heavy volume of shadow that instantly sets the tenor of the scene. The moment you set eyes on them, you know that these beautiful people 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. They were here like guests at a surprise party expecting your arrival, and now you have entered the room – their room, not the real room around you – or so it mysteriously seems. The image holds you there, amazed, motionless as the moment it represents. Everyone sees; everyone is seen (the mirror on the back wall is like an emblem).

But take a few steps towards the painting in all its astounding veracity and the vision swithers. The princess’s hair becomes a mirage, the background figures appear inchoate, and you can no longer see where a hand stops and the tray it is holding begins. The nearer you get, the more these semblances of reality seem to disappear. 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.

‘The past in all its mortal beauty’: Las Meninas, the 1656 Velazquez masterpiece that held Laura Cumming spellbound at the Prado in Madrid.

Velázquez keeps this vanished circle before us like the moment’s reflection in a mirror: look into it and you are seen in return. And 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 princess and her maids, who must have rushed round to see themselves the moment Velázquez finished, to the chamberlain in the glowing doorway at the back, the king and queen in the mirror, and onwards through history. We stand where they once stood, the mirror implies (and the servants’ eyes). 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 waiting for us in the Prado; they will never go away, as long as we 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 I most needed in my life.

The image holds you there, amazed, motionless as the moment it represents. Everyone sees; everyone is seen

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 recognised this truth; literature is full of characters falling in love with the people in paintings, obsessing over enigmatic figures, 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 passionate responses, but this is not how the rest of us are encouraged to view art by specialists, for whom feelings may be dubious or irrelevant compared to a solid grounding in history. “If one should happen to experience an involuntary personal response,” a mighty art historian once advised me, as if mentioning some embarrassing arousal, “one should always keep it firmly to oneself.”

I disagree. I don’t believe that artists make paintings without some hope of reaching more than our eyes, or that our personal responses are beside the point. An intimate story of art has yet to be written, and when it is we shall see how art can change our lives in more than the usual pious sense of improving our morals. With this in mind, I wanted to compile a book of praise for Velázquez, and because art history does not concern itself much with the power of images to move or in any way affect us, I went looking for other people’s reactions 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 a 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 across a yellowing pamphlet from 1847 stitched into a leather-bound volume along with a history of the Hawaiian Islands and a collection of short stories ominously titled Fact and Fiction. If the owner of this odd miscellany, a Victorian 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 [sic]” 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? The guess turned out to be right.

John Snare was a bookseller from Reading. His shop was at 16 Minster Street, where he had not only written but published the pamphlet himself. And although I did not yet know it, he was in fact the owner of the painting, sold at a country house auction as a possible Van Dyck. Snare describes the portrait quite clearly: the young Charles with his large liquid eyes and pale face, appearing in three-quarter view without rigidity or outline, the painting as airy as mist (and the prince too young for Van Dyck, who only portrayed Charles in his 30s). For a moment, in the fug of the library, I seemed to think I had some inkling of this picture, commonly mentioned by historians as the one good thing to come out of Charles’s doomed visit to Madrid in 1623 to court the Spanish princess. I imagined the young Charles, who had entirely failed to charm the disdainful princess, given a better face by Velázquez, his dignity restored to the point of grace.

Overnight, however, I began to doubt the description so completely that I returned 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, and I became entangled.

The pamphlet was a miniature catalogue for an exhibition held in Old Bond Street, London to high acclaim in 1847. This show, like so many in those days before museum surveys, when paintings were presented as spectacular revelations, had only one exhibit – the newly discovered Charles. The staging was meticulous. Visitors passed through heavy drapes into a cell-like space enclosed by screens, where they came face to face with the portrait, illuminated by gas as the day faded into dusk. They saw the painting in silence, beautifully lit and without any other visual distractions – ideal conditions, in fact, for viewing the art of Velázquez.

This was only the first of Snare’s many labours of love.

His feeling for the portrait touched me. Snare did not see it 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.

From the moment he possessed the portrait (or it possessed him), Snare’s life changed direction. It ruined his life

At first I was following the painting, like Snare, but soon I was following the bookseller too. The trail took me to my home city of Edinburgh, where he displayed the painting in Princes Street in 1849, at the beginning of what might have been a successful British tour had not two sheriff-officers suddenly appeared with a warrant to seize the painting as stolen goods.

I found transcripts of the shocking trial that followed, involving outraged aristocrats and London dealers, servants who had dusted the picture in an earl’s mansion and frame-makers who claimed to have seen it in quite other places. Every class of society was represented, from the Scottish nobility to the typesetters who worked alongside Snare in Reading and remembered his life-or-death passion for the portrait. I had never encountered a case where the voices of the past were so clearly heard speaking about art in an age before it became densely familiar through museums, exhibitions and reproductions.

Scarcely a single witness had seen more than one Velázquez, and many testified to the extraordinary surprise of this one, the face of the long-dead prince flashing up into a timeless present.

For the art of Velázquez was rare, unfamiliar, obscure. He left so few paintings – not more than 120 over a 40-year career – it is rightly said that he measured out his genius in thimblefuls. Almost all of his work was painted for king and court and stayed exactly where it was made, long after his death in 1660, immured in the Spanish royal palaces. Even when the Prado opened in 1819, with the revelation of more than 40 paintings by Velázquez, only the well-heeled British traveller could have the slightest sense of his work that is so freely available to us today. There were no reproductions, 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 Snare’s case in quite the same way.

Was the painting a Velázquez or not? When Snare exhibited it in Old Bond Street, 50 British newspapers and magazines came out resoundingly in its favour, with calls for the painting to be purchased for the nation. But Snare would not part with it. Why? And how could a Reading bookseller have discovered a lost masterpiece that so many people had looked for and never found? Was Snare genuine, was the painting stolen, was he making it up?

From the moment he possessed the portrait (or it possessed him), Snare’s life changed direction. It was a picture he would be forced to defend from seizure and damage, that took him from Reading to the most fashionable streets of London and New York, from provincial obscurity to newspaper fame; a painting that came to mean more to him than anything in the world, more than his family, his home and himself, that would lead to disaster and exile in New York. The painting ruined his life.

Laura Cumming beside Velázquez’s Portrait of a Man at Apsley House, where John Snare would also have seen it.

Snare loved the art of Velázquez as I do, or at least the little he could see of it that wasn’t locked away in English country houses. He took the early steam trains to Yorkshire and Hampton Court to look at every Velázquez (and Van Dyck) on show to the public to get a better sense of what he owned. He and I have even stood on exactly the same spot electrified by exactly the same painting in Apsley House in London, a century and more apart, for it has never changed position from his day to ours. Portrait of a Man shows a man in black holding himself formidably still and correct, one eye a pure black disc, the other a dark star in the atmosphere that flickers around him like St Elmo’s fire. The paint is fluid and fine as condensation on a mirror. This is a man in mid-thought, quick with watchful intelligence, on equal terms with the painter; indeed, they were both chamberlains at the Spanish court. For this is Nieto, the man hovering in that famous glowing doorway in Las Meninas, waiting to lead us from this world into the next. I know this but Snare did not; he had never even seen a print of Las Meninas.

I have felt sorrow for Snare, the autodidact, with his humble resources and powerful opponents. I have been troubled by his escape to New York, where the portrait would one day appear in – and disappear from – the Metropolitan Museum. I have also felt exasperated as the bookseller, with his Dickensian surname, turns into a litigant out of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, still refusing to sell the portrait for any money. But perhaps art meant more to him than riches. “The picture is not for sale,” he wrote. “It has to me a value that to no other person it could possibly possess. I have laboured hard and suffered something to make the world appreciate its worth. Could I part with this, it is not in the fortune of life to discover such another.”

But at the very end of the trail, I made my own unexpected discovery.

Although John Snare has led me through thickets of contradictory evidence, I am bound to him, grateful to him, for allowing me to write about Velázquez – who would have painted him with the utmost respect. For if Velázquez teaches us anything, it is the depth and complexity of our fellow beings – respect for the servants and the dwarves, the chamberlains, the monarchs and the sellers of books: that is what his art transmits.

To respect these portraits is to respect these people. And this depth is not an illusion. The mystery of Velázquez’s art is not just that his paintings are both dazzling and profoundly moving all at once, but that these apparent opposites coincide to the extent that one feels neither can exist without the other. The truth of life, of our brief walk in the sun, has to be set down in a flash of brilliant brush strokes that are almost disappearing. The image, the person, the life: all are here now but on the edge of dissolution. It is the definition of our human existence.

The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez by Laura Cumming is published by Chatto & Windus (£18.99) on 7 January. Click here to order a copy for £15.19. The Vanishing Man will be Radio 4’s Book of the Week, beginning on 11 January

[Editor] 张艳