18 Jun 2021

Reflections on The Rokeby Venus

Diego Velázquez: The Toilet of Venus 
aka 'The Rokeby Venus' (1647-51) 
Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 177 cm 

D. H. Lawrence once jokingly suggested that his painting The Rape of the Sabine Women (1928) might best be described as a 'Study in Arses' [1]
And perhaps something similar might also be said of the only surviving female nude painted by Velázquez - the so-called Rokeby Venus - which has a lovely looking bottom as its focus point (one hardly notices the rather blurry face reflected in the mirror held by Cupid). 
Although paintings of the naked Venus had been popularised by 16th-century Venetian painters, such an overtly sensual picture would, of course, have been highly controversial in 17th-century Spain; the Catholic Church strongly disapproving of such risqué images. 
Amusingly, it's a picture that has continued to provoke outrage amongst moralists and militant ascetics of all stripes, including fanatic suffragettes such as Mary Richardson who, on the morning of March 10th, 1914, entered the National Gallery and attacked Velázquez’s most celebrated work with a meat-cleaver [2], and contemporary feminists concerned with the imperial male gaze and the sexual objectification of women, etc., etc. 
On the other hand, since its arrival and public display at the National Gallery in 1906, this extraordinary painting continues to inspire a wide range of artists, including the photographer Helmut Newton, who in 1981, took this beautiful photograph, after Velázquez, in his apartment in Paris, for an edition of French Vogue [3]:

[1] See D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI, ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton, with Gerald M. Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991), letter 4370, sent to Aldous and Maria Huxley [2 April 1928], p. 353.  

[2] Frustrated by their failure to achieve equal voting rights for women, some within the suffragette movement, including Mary Richardson - a loyal supporter of Emmeline Pankhurst - favoured the adoption of increasingly militant tactics. As well as the attack on The Rokeby Venus, Richardson committed acts of arson, smashed windows at the Home Office, and bombed a railway station. She was arrested on nine occasions and received prison terms totalling more than three years. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering her penchant for political violence, in 1932 she joined Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (as did several other leading suffragettes, including Norah Elam and Mary Sophia Allen). 
      For an interesting online essay on all this, see Philip McCouat, 'From the Rokeby Venus to Fascism', Journal of Art in Society - click here

[3] To be honest, this photo has always meant more to me than the painting that inspired it and those who attended my Visions of Excess series at Treadwell's in 2004 might remember that the final paper on nihilism, culture, art and technology, featured an adapted version of this picture on the poster designed to advertise the talk.     

No comments:

Post a Comment