The Velázquez painting known as the Rokeby Venus hangs in the National Gallery in London. It was badly slashed by a suffragette in 1914. Not that suffragettes have anything to do with this novel, which is a tale of art, forgery and crime.
The main character, the American Chaz Wilmot, is a brilliant, disillusioned and somewhat unlikeable artist who stubbornly refuses to create original work, preferring to design magazine covers. As a result he is divorced from the wife he still loves and lives in an industrial attic in New York. His only friends are an art dealer he has known since college, and possibly his ex-wife.
The story is slow to start, with much background being laid down. These beginning pages are intermingled with commentary on the nature of art. Is art something sacred or is it a way to earn a living? In Velázquez’ day artists were craftsmen, not gentlemen. Velázquez, also brilliant, and possibly unlikeable, devoted his talents to earning a living at the Spanish Royal Court and his energies to getting a knighthood. Except there is that one nude Venus, and there were possibly more. A lot of Velázquez’ work was lost in a fire that destroyed the royal palace in Madrid, on Christmas Eve, 1734.
Chaz Wilmot claims he painted a newly discovered Velázquez. Not only that, he claims he is Velázquez, and that he painted the nude Venus in Rome in 1650, and the model’s name was Leonora Fortunati. You will, he states, find seventeenth century Roman grime in the craqueleur…
“You think I’m crazy,”
“Frankly, yes. You even look crazy. But maybe you’re just drunk.”
“I’m not that drunk. You think I’m crazy because I said I painted that thing in 1650, and that’s impossible. Tell me, what is the time?”
I looked at my watch and said, ‘It’s five to ten,’ and he laughed in a peculiar way and said, ‘Yes, later than you think. But, you know, what if it’s the case that our existence – sorry our consciousness of our existence at any particular now – is quite arbitrary?’ ”
This is a book of questions, doubts and shifting realities. Why should a suddenly rediscovered painting by an old master be worth millions when a perfect modern version of the same thing is worth a few thousand? What is real, or true, about the art market? And what is true, or real, about a novel? An author can make you believe anything they want, or at least oblige you to choose what to believe.