Painter to the King follows the Spanish court painter Diego Velazquez from entering King Philip IV’s court until his death in 1660. Well-liked and respected within the court, it is fair to say that Velazquez was far from pretentious when selecting the subjects of his work, ranging from the Royal family in all their splendour to an old peasant woman cooking eggs. His style combines a peculiar mixture of the realistic and abstract. What Velazquez wants the viewer to focus on becomes murky territory, particularly in his busy works such as Las Meninas and Las Hilanderas. The intimate relationship between Velazquez and the Royal Family becomes the focus of Sackville’s novel. Sackville observes Velazquez the way Velazquez himself observed the world which we can see through his paintings.
Historical novels often take an interesting combination of fact and interpretation, being arduous if not done right and bordering on fan fiction if the history is taken as gospel. That being said there is only so much fact that can be imitated through art. Velazquez is certainly a well-loved artist even to this day and is a compelling choice to focus a novel on. The transformation of his paintings into a different form is the most interesting aspect of this novel. In translating painting to writing, there are subtle hints into Velazquez painter’s eye, such as keen observations in how the light blankets his landscape and subjects. It seems the world is his stage to imitate. That being said, the novel offers the reader literal close ups of the artist’s real work. Ironically, the writer does not need to find the words to succinctly illustrate a painting. Arguably, fine art compared to writing is apples and oranges. However, Sackville is able to grasp onto something very human about artists and sinks into Velazquez’s body with authenticity and empathy. The novel to an extent looks at creation and the creative process, providing an imaginative access to a space in which a King can become a man. The novel adapts historical accounts in which King Philip would enter Velazquez’s quarters and watch him paint. The King ceases from the weight of being ruler, to meditatively watch another man’s work. Like the reader, he looks into a private space where an artist creates something from nothing, in a manner, bridging that space between artist and subject. Forever, we will only ever see King Philip IV through Velazquez’s perception, and he sheds light on the many facets a person possesses. Sackville illuminates the lonelier and less divine version of the King and that can only be done through the power of hindsight and creativity.
The writing is intimate, evocative and often challenging. Painter to the King deconstructs the grammar that you would find in traditional prose – expect an overwhelming use of dashes, absence of speech marks and a fascinating fluidity in perspective. Fans of challenging writing, such as the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, will certainly find this book a rewarding experience.