Category Archives: history

The Vanishing Velázquez 

l54j4lkjWhen Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany.  Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.

9781476762180_p0_v3_s192x300 Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez.  As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but  also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.

Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller.  Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history.  If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.

As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art.  Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar  palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.

As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family.  Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings.  Philip IV,  Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs.  With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions.  His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.

The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book.  Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City.  Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting.  The big mystery, however, is never solved.  Where is the painting today?

Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent  descendants of Snare can be found.  Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:

“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever.  The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”

Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.

Related ReviewThe Art Forger

The Queen’s Accomplice

9780804178723_p0_v1_s192x300  Women with power may be a threat to some but Susan Elia MacNeal uses this timely theme in her latest Maggie Hope murder mystery – The Queen’s Accomplice.  With the same British flavor as her other five books in the series, MacNeal features the young British secret service agent with a flair for logic in the search for a Jack the Ripper clone who has been killing women agents.  Since first meeting Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, I’ve enjoyed her feisty attitude and mathematical acumen.  Her forays into romance with fellow agents help too.

The Queen in this book is not the newly popular Victoria nor the young Elizabeth of the new Netflix series “The Crown,” but Elizabeth’s mother, who stood by her husband, King George, during the war.  Although she only has a minor role in the plot, MacNeal confirms the Queen’s influence and wartime support.   As a modern woman of the nineteen forties, Maggie Hope has many of the same issues as women today, and has the support of other women, including the Queen.

MacNeal cleverly connects Maggie’s service in the war to ongoing problems women face in their personal lives and in the workplace.  Although the book is a mystery with a killer to be found, the story offers confirmation of women’s rights in making their own decisions, and in being valuable for their contributions to society.

9780399593802   The book ends with a new adventure about to start, as Maggie waves goodbye to the Queen and boards a plane to Paris.  The Paris Spy will be published this summer – I can’t wait.

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Books Not Just to Inspire Girls – Hidden Figures and Glass Universe

The promotion of women in math and science has long been a target for organizations like AAUW (American Association of University Women), STEM proponents(science, technology, engineering, math), and others – now two new books explain how women have been there all along, just without getting credit – Hidden Figures and Glass Universe.

9780062363602_p0_v2_s192x300  Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley was recently made into a movie.  I confess – I have not yet read the book, but after seeing the movie, I have it on my library reserve list – waiting with 84 prospective readers before me.  Based on the lives of real women who worked at NASA during the exciting birth of space travel, the story also reveals the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the indignities suffered by women today admired as geniuses.

I recently listened to a discussion by a group of women about the definition of “genius,” and sadly observed the term still seems to designate the talents of established white men.  Literature and the arts were also omitted as candidates. In Hidden Figures, the geniuses were not only women, they were black women.

9780670016952_p0_v2_s192x300The title of Glass Universe – How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars reminds me of the glass ceiling women have yet to crack in the United States – in politics anyway – and the disparity in salaries – mentioned in both books.  Dave Sobel’s book focuses on the women working under Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory and their groundbreaking work in astronomy.  Only six readers are ahead of me on this wait list – the advantage of not having the movie made yet.

Have you read these books yet?

News of the World

9780062409201_p0_v5_s192x300 What a ride – with a seventy-one year old and a ten year old on the road together in Texas soon after the Civil War.  Paulette Jiles’ short book – News of the World – has the fast paced adventure of an old Western.

When Captain Kidd agrees to deliver a young blond girl back to her German family in San Antonio, he creates an unlikely partnership.  Captured by the Kiowa tribe when she was six years old, the girl only knows the ways of her adopted family. She speaks no English and bridles at the uncomfortable clothes she is forced to wear.  Captain Kidd, a seasoned army sergeant and former printer, works like Mark Twain on the road,  reading newspaper stories on stage to the interested and illiterate, as he tries to make money in his retirement.

Although the girl, named Johanna by the Captain, is wary and angry, her intelligence and skills in tribal warfare help the Captain overcome their first adversaries, men from another tribe intent on capturing and selling her into child prostitution (“blond girls are premium”).  As they continue their journey, Johanna and Kidd bond, with her calling him Grandpa and he protecting and teaching her through a series of adventures – some humorous, some frightening.

The plot line is direct and Jiles provides a satisfying ending, but Jiles’ vivid descriptions are the real story.  Her historical notes of the unrest and hardships after the Civil War immerse the reader into another time – the wild West just as it is beginning to develop.  Through the relationship between the Captain and the girl, the author cleverly reveals their two disparate  backgrounds, while maintaining the common denominators of human kindness and priorities for values worth having.

I came across Jiles’ book just as I finished reading the first book of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  The densely packed Justine had left me wanting a story more readable and with a less cynical view; News of the World delivered.  Jiles’ book is short and focused, and redeemed my notion of books delivering  an escape and possibly some wisdom.  One of the phrases I will remember:

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we  are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

The News of the World was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.

Queen Victoria

Without a time machine, historical inaccuracies about personal lives are hard to prove, and the practice of selecting only the best for posterity sometimes shades perception. Jane Austen’s sister conveniently burned the famous author’s diaries; Jacqueline Kennedy famously engineered the Camelot legacy through Theodore White; biographer Julia Baird notes “Victoria’s daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals and edited out everything that seemed to reflect poorly on her, then burned the originals.”

Until Julian Fellowes created the  movie “Young Victoria” in 2009, most readers thought of Queen Victoria as the short, heavy, frumpy monarch in black who made infrequent appearances.  Although history notes Victoria had nine children, her romantic inclinations and Albert’s courting of the young queen were usually overwhelmed by her later years.  Berated by the royal family for inserting inaccurate scenes to increase the drama – Prince Albert never really took a bullet for Victoria – Fellowes never blinked as he introduced a new look for Victoria and went on to create Downton Abbey the following year.

9781410495877_p0_v1_s192x300A new Masterpiece Theater series on the Public Broadcasting System promises more of the younger queen, and author Daisy Goodwin – creator and writer of the series – offers a glimpse with her new novel Victoria.  Goodwin begins the book with the sixteen year old hoping her uncle, the king, will live to her eighteenth birthday, so she can rule without a regent, most probably her estranged mother.  She gets her wish, becoming queen soon after she comes of age.

Goodwin elaborates on a few vague historical tidbits to provide drama and interest – embellishing the young queen’s infatuation with her prime minister and capitalizing on her accusation of Lady Flora Hastings as a catalyst in her waning popularity.

Though fictional, Goodwin manages to tear away the historical image of a prudish moralistic matron to reveal Victoria as human after all.  Descriptions of her early insecurities about her appearance, her fiercely independent determination, along with happy moments with her little dog and carefree rides on her horse – all transform an icon into flesh and blood.  Amazingly, knowing Victoria and Albert will eventually marry does not detract from the breathless anticipation as Goodwin concludes the novel with Victoria’s proposal.

Goodwin’s Victoria is an easy digestible history lesson, with added spice.  Like her novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter, Goodwin’s Victoria immerses the reader in the world of the heroine, and, if all the facts are not exactly correct – as Julian Fellowes says, “What does it matter?”

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