Extract from The Vanishing Man: In Search of Velazquez

MY father died quite suddenly when I was in my late twenties. He was a painter.

MASTERPIECE: Velazquez's Las Meninas
MASTERPIECE: Velazquez’s Las Meninas

The fatal illness attacked his brain, 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 a bitter midwinter, a city chosen because neither he nor I had ever been there and I couldn’t speak the language. There could no 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 room and walk round and 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 Museum time and again, sometimes twice in one day, steeling myself not to go in. Eventually the effort to avoid the place became a distraction in itself and it was there, in that crowded city within a city, that I had the luckiest of strikes. On a hunt for El Greco, one of my father’s favourite painters, 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 all the people standing at the other end of the gallery moved aside as one, clearing an open view to the source of that light: Velazquez’s monumental Las Meninas.

I had no thought of it, 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 the mirror-bright vision of a little princess, her young maidservants and the artist himself, all gathered in a pool of sunlight at the bottom of a great volume of shadow, an impending darkness that instantly sets the tenor of the scene. The moment you set eyes on them, you know that these beautiful children 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, all these people looking back at you from their side of the room. The princess in her shimmering dress, the maids in their ribbons and bows, the tiny page and the tall, dark painter, the nun whose murmur is just fading away and the chamberlain silhouetted in the glowing doorway at the back: everyone registers your presence. They were here like guests at a surprise party waiting for your arrival and now you have entered the room – their room, not the real one around you – or so it mysteriously seems. The whole scene twinkles with expectation. That is the first sensation on the threshold of that gallery in the Prado where Las Meninas hangs: that you have walked into their world and become suddenly as present to them as they are to you.

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 Velazquez these long-lost people will always be there at the heart of the Prado, always waiting for us to arrive. Las Meninas is like a chamber of the mind, a place where the dead will never die. The gratitude I feel to Velazquez for this greatest of paintings is untold; he gave me the consolation to return to my own life.

Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez is published by Chatto & Windus

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