A Controversial Goddess
Painted by the Spanish painter Velázquez between 1647-51 is one of the most recognisable paintings in art history, The Toilet of Venus. More commonly known as The Rokeby Venus after it was housed in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, it is famous not just for its artistry and exquisite skill, but for its long history involving controversy in its conception and as the focal point in a feminist suffragette protest.
The painting depicts Venus the Roman goddess of love in a reclining pose on a bed with her back to the viewer. Cupid, the goddess’s son, holds up a mirror in which Venus looks at herself and the simultaneously the viewer through her reflected image. The reflected image is itself not clear. It is blurred, inaccurate and appears much larger than it should. This has in turn led to some scholars to believe that the viewer was not intended to see a specific person, but the representation of beauty.
The pink ribbons that are wrapped around Cupid’s wrists are the subject of much debate. Some believe that they have the purely functional purpose of being used to hang the mirror whilst another theory is that they represent the fetters used by Cupid to bind lovers together. If we are to take the latter theory, what connotations does this have for the Cupid of the piece? Do the ribbons then suggest that he is forever bound and tied to the goddess and the image of beauty?
The Rokeby Venus is the only surviving female nude painted by Velázquez. This genre was heavily frowned upon and contentious in seventeenth century Spain and such works were met with disapproval from the Church. Female nude paintings were strongly discouraged and such works could be seized by the Spanish Inquisition or ordered to be repainted. Artists that painted such subject matter could be fined, excommunicated or banished from Spain for a year.
The choice by Velázquez to paint a full female nude during this time demonstrates how bold and contentious his painting was. However it is not a full frontal nude, it is painted with the back of Venus exposed to the viewer which has been noted by critics that this may in fact have been a way for Velázquez to swerve around the standard convention for preserving and representing modesty at the time by painting her from the back and not the front.
The most stand out moment in the painting’s history is most notably when it became the centre of a feminist suffragette protest in 1914. On the 10th day in March of that year Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and took a meat cleaver to the painting delivering seven slashes to the canvas. She later declared that her motive for the vandalism had been the arrest of Emmeline Prankhurst the previous day. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” She later added in a later interview in 1952 that she “hated the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”
Her statement seems to symbolise a feminist attitude towards the female nude genre. Attracting the attention of male viewers and inviting them to project a certain image or fantasy onto the depicted figure.
The sexuality of an image is rooted in its visual form and how it is represented to the viewer. Therefore, when concerned with the female nude genre, the “sexual component of the image” is tied to how the body has been styled and in the practice of looking at such a portrayal.
Women are most frequently illustrated in a reclining pose, such as in the “Rokeby Venus”, this format is highly suggestive of sexual availability and is often paired with the woman being presented on a bed or some form of material, which has connotations of an arena for sexual activity, and thus represents the woman as a passive vessel of sexuality.
Objectification of women in art and the way in which they are portrayed is known as the male gaze. The theory, coined by Laura Mulvey in her theoretical essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’calls upon the Freudian concept of scopophilia which identifies pleasure with looking and as an act that is a characteristic of sexuality yet exists independently of the erotogenic zones. Mulvey argues that the pleasure experienced by looking at an image is classified into two categories; that of active male and passive female.
The image of women posed as passive beings are created in this way which allows the active male to project their fantasies upon them. This is identified as the ‘male gaze’ whereby women are presented in an erotic manner for the visual pleasure of a male spectator. This bears relevance to the notion of scopophilia which was associated by Freud as objectifying people and “subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”
The male gaze can thus be identified as being more than just viewing an object but rather as the relation between the object and the viewer. A painting that is made in the guise of the male gaze then requires the viewer to essentially become an active male viewer as the painting was created in the male gaze. The woman in the image therefore becomes an object of desire and ownership for the male viewer.
With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why this painting caused such outrage with Mary Richardson. The allusion to the objectification of a woman’s body who is subjected to male fantasy are not characteristics that are likely resound feminist ideals.
A painting of undisputed quality and notoriety it has earned its place as an iconic and infamous painting in art history.