Painter to the King

Written by Amy Sackville
Review by Karen Warren

In 1622, the artist Diego Velázquez was summoned to Madrid to paint King Philip IV and his courtiers. He remained a member of the King’s household for the rest of his life; Painter to the King portrays the Spanish court through his eyes. It shows the personal and political weakness of the king and his struggle to provide a living heir. We see the greed and ambition of his courtiers and the excesses of the court. Along the way, we also get glimpses of Velázquez’s own life, and of his gradual rise as a trusted servant of the king.

The style of the book is almost stream-of-consciousness, told as though the narrator is standing before Velázquez’s paintings and trying to squeeze meaning from them. There is no dialogue, and little action. But there is lots of evocative detail, examining the minutiae of everyday life. Through Velázquez, and his work, the narrator reflects upon the process of painting and upon what static images can, and cannot, tell us. We are left with a sense of a past that is ghostly, whose reality can only ever be guessed at.

Once I got used to the way it was written, I found Painter to the King intriguing and thought-provoking. It is a book to savour, particularly recommended for art lovers, and for anyone who enjoys a slow, thoughtful read.