'The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus)'- by Diego Velázquez (1647-51). Oil on canvas- 122.5 x 177 cm. On display at the National Gallery, London.

One of Diego’s most well known paintings, not only for the fact that it is his only surviving female nude, but for the controversy that surrounded it in 1914 when a suffragette attacked the painting, slashing it with an axe.

The Rokeby Venus is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and significant portrayals of Venus in the history of western painting. Venus- the goddess of love, is painted seen from behind, lying on a bed. Her son, Cupid holds up a mirror for her to look into, both at herself and at the viewer, showing only her face, in a blur. Some say that this reveals the underlying meaning of the painting- not as a female nude, a portrayal of Venus, but as an image of self-absorbed beauty. The interesting thing is that the mirror is held at the wrong angle for her to be able to see her face, it is titled so that she can spy on us as we look at her.

A painting of a nude was rare in Spain in those days because the church disapproved of it. It is thought that the painting was made for the Marqués family- one of whom was the first minister of Spain. It was displayed privately from 1651 in the collection of the Marqués del Carpio, son of the minister so as to avoid the Spanish Inquisition. During this Inquisition, pictures had been censored and artists who painted these kinds of things were excommunicated, fined very heavily and banished.

The Rokeby Venus was bought for the National Gallery, London in 1906, being the subject of an ambitious public campaign by the Art Fund to save it from being sold abroad. To pay for it, the charity raised the asking price of £45,000 in just three months. Now known as ‘The Rokeby Venus’ because it was on display in the Morritt Collection at Rokeby Hall, Yorkshire, before its acquisition by the Gallery. Then, in 1914 on a public day at the art gallery, a militant suffragette, Mary Richardson, produced an axe from under her coat (although different sources tell us she used different things, an axe or a cleaver), smashing the glass of the picture and slashed Venus’ backside 7 times before a police officer and gallery attendant could pull her away. The painting was repaired, but the faint lines of the slashes can still be seen.

See the painting!

For information about Mary Richardson: http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/mary.htm

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