> Skip to content
  • Published: 3 January 2017
  • ISBN: 9780099587040
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $19.99

The Vanishing Man

In Pursuit of Velazquez

The captivating and mysterious tale of a Victorian bookseller whose fate was changed forever by the great painter Velazquez

WINNER OF THE JAMES TAIT BLACK BIOGRAPHY PRIZESHORTLISTED FOR THE RATHBONES FOLIO PRIZELONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTIONSelected as a Book of the Year in the HeraldIn 1845, a Reading bookseller named John Snare came across the dirt-blackened portrait of a prince at a country house auction. Suspecting that it might be a long-lost Velázquez, he bought the picture and set out to discover its strange history - a quest that led from fame to ruin and exile.

Fusing detection and biography, this book shows how and why great works of art can affect us, even to the point of mania. And on the trail of John Snare, Cumming makes a surprising discovery of her own. But most movingly, The Vanishing Man is an eloquent and passionate homage to the Spanish master Velázquez, bringing us closer to the creation and appreciation of his works than ever before.

  • Published: 3 January 2017
  • ISBN: 9780099587040
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $19.99

About the author

Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been chief art critic of the Observer since 1999. Her book, The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez, was Book of the Week on Radio 4, Wall Street Journal Book of the Year and a New York Times bestseller. It won the 2017 James Tait Black Biography Prize and was published to critical acclaim (‘A riveting detective story: readers will be spellbound’ Colm Tóibín). Her first book, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, was described by Nick Hornby as ‘Brilliant, fizzing with ideas not just about art but human nature’ and by Julian Barnes as ‘that rare item: an art book where the text is so enthralling that the pictures almost seem like an interruption’.

Also by Laura Cumming

See all

Praise for The Vanishing Man

The Vanishing Man is a riveting detective story and a brilliant reconstruction of an art controversy, but it is also a homage to the art of Velázquez, written by a critic who remains spellbound by his genius, as readers will be spellbound by this book

Colm Tóibín

Sumptuous...A gleaming work of someone at the peak of her craft

New York Times

An extraordinary story ... This terrific book is many things, a study in obsession, a paean of praise to an artist of genius, a detective story and, for the author, an exorcism of grief. Writing like Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk, in the wake of the death of her father, Cumming pours heart and soul in The Vanishing Man and she has produced something of which her artist father, James Cumming, would be more than proud


Laura Cumming twists several genres around her supple fingers in order to tell the extraordinary story of how Snare fell under the spell of a painting and sacrificed everything - prosperity, reputation, a respectable death surrounded by loving family - so that he might live with it like a love ... The detective story [...] gusts the plot along at a cracking pace... You put down The Vanishing Man not quite sure how Cumming has been able to bring off this particular magic trick, but happy and grateful that she has.


In this superb and original book, Cumming interweaves the gripping story of Snare with that of Diego Velázquez himself, painting at the court in Madrid in the 17th century.. Like Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch, this is about the particular forms of obsession that only art can generate... This enthralling book is about what it means to create art so luminous that others would fight just to get close to it

Sunday Times

This is an absorbing dual biography inspired by the author's passion for Velázquez... Cumming brings her subject alive and writes with empathy and insight


A real-life detective story involving an Old Master portrait of an ill-fated English king and an art obsession that would lead to the ruin of one of the book's two mysterious protagonists: one a humble 19th-century printer and bookseller from Reading, John Snare; the other the great 17th-century Spanish court painter named in the title ... Interwoven into the narrative of Snare's tribulations, and of beautifully compelling accounts of Velázquez's paintings, are moving snippets of biography that reveal Cumming's own relationship to the great Spanish master


Simultaneously art historian and detective, Cumming skilfully weaves together the lives not only of Velázquez and Snare, but also of the ill-fated king and of the man who unknowingly sparked her interest in the Spanish artist — her late father, the painter James Cumming.

Anna Godfrey, Financial Times

Ingenious... intriguing... [Cumming] subtly interweaves the two narratives - that of Snare and that of Velázquez - so that they illuminate each other in surprising ways.

Mark Hudson, Daily Telegraph

The painter, writes Cumming, allowed every sitter 'his privacy, his secrecy, his full mystery' even when revealing them for all to see and in this accomplished and touching book she allows her two subjects theirs

Michael Prodger, Evening Standard

The compelling tale of enigmatic Spanish painter Velazquez – and the obsessive fan who bought himself a lifetime of misery…

Mail on Sunday

The book is so carefully made that each part seems to reflect and light up the rest ... This is a cultural whodunnit, and the skill is in making the pursuit as engaging as the dénouement

Nicola Shulman, The Oldie

[Cumming] subtly interweaves the two narratives – that of Snare and that of Velazquez – so that they illuminate each other in surprising ways… intriguing.

Mark Hudson, Daily Telegraph

Cumming is the sensitive and perceptive art critic of The Observer and author of a fine study of self portraits, A Face to the World (2010), and when she writes of the paintings, her words take wing

Huon Mallalieu, Country Life

A magnificent piece of historical research... But it is also an eloquent defence of pure connoisseurship against dry contextual academicism – and a blazing display of passionate looking.

Emma Crichton Miller, Prospect

As compelling and entertaining as a detective novel, this is an engaging book, comparable to C. Lewis Hind’s “Days with Velázquez” from 1906.

The Economist

Laura Cumming twists several genres around her supple fingers in order to tell [this] extraordinary story… The detective story…gusts the plot along at a cracking pace.

Kathryn Hughes, Guardian Weekly

Cumming deftly moves back and forth between the sad story of Snare…and her own enthusiastic and vivid account of many of [Velazquez’s] greatest works… A skilfully plotted detective story – complete with meticulous detail, forensic analysis and unexpected twists in the plot… [Cumming] brings out the mesmerising virtuosity of Velazquez’s brush.

John Brewer, Literary Review

Deftly intertwines the tale of one of art history’s most mysterious and magical painters with the true story of…an obscure 19th-century bookseller’s obsession.

Louisa Buck, Art Newspaper

A book full of interest and passion… [Cumming] has succeeded in bringing Velazquez’s paintings to life by her vivid evocation of them.

The Catholic Herald

A book full of interest and passion… [Cumming] has succeeded in bringing Velazquez’s paintings to life by her vivid evocation of them.

The Catholic Herald

Absorbing tale… Cumming has woven a detective mystery, a social micro-history and a loving account of perhaps Spain’s greatest painter… A highly enjoyable art-historical detective story.

Edmund Fawcett, Royal Academy Magazine

A wonderful story

Andrew Kelly, Guardian

A paean to the emotional effects of great art… This giddying account brings the Spanish master to life.

Duncan Wheeler, Times Literary Supplement

I read this at one go: a gripping triple narrative…evoked with the lightest touch but real seriousness of purpose.

Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

A vivid biography… The glow from this marvelous book lingers months after I finished it.

James Le Fanu, Tablet

A moving memorial… A cracking good story to boot

Honor Clerk, Spectator, Book of the Year

[Written] in shimmering prose fuelled by an intriguing mystery… Cumming explores the nature of artistic obsession and desire.

Kathryn Hughes, Guardian, Book of the Year

[A] touching and thrilling quest for a lost Velazquez.

Peter Conrad, Observer, Book of the Year

A gripping tale with as many twists and turns as a detective story… Immaculately researched and told.

Guardian, Book of the Year

A riveting, multilayered page-turner, it is highly recommended, especially if you share Cumming’s art obsession.


Related titles