The Toilet of Venus (Venus at her Mirror or The Rokeby Venus)

Diego Velazquez
Keywords: ToiletVenusVenusMirrorRokebyVenus

Work Overview

The Toilet of Venus (Venus at her Mirror; The Rokeby Venus)
Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas
122,5 x 177 cm
National Gallery, London

The Rokeby Venus (/ˈroʊkbi/; also known as The Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, Venus and Cupid, or La Venus del espejo) is a painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age. Completed between 1647 and 1651,[3] and probably painted during the artist's visit to Italy, the work depicts the goddess Venus in a sensual pose, lying on a bed and looking into a mirror held by the Roman god of physical love, her son Cupid. The painting is in the National Gallery, London.

Numerous works, from the ancient to the baroque, have been cited as sources of inspiration for Velázquez. The nude Venuses of the Italian painters, such as Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (c. 1510) and Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538), were the main precedents. In this work, Velázquez combined two established poses for Venus: recumbent on a couch or a bed, and gazing at a mirror. She is often described as looking at herself on the mirror, although this is physically impossible since viewers can see her face reflected in their direction. This phenomenon is known as the Venus effect.[4] In a number of ways the painting represents a pictorial departure, through its central use of a mirror, and because it shows the body of Venus turned away from the observer of the painting.[5]

The Rokeby Venus is the only surviving female nude by Velázquez. Nudes were extremely rare in seventeenth-century Spanish art,[6] which was policed actively by members of the Spanish Inquisition. Despite this, nudes by foreign artists were keenly collected by the court circle, and this painting was hung in the houses of Spanish courtiers until 1813, when it was brought to England to hang in Rokeby Park, Yorkshire. In 1906, the painting was purchased by National Art Collections Fund for the National Gallery, London. Although it was attacked and badly damaged in 1914 by the suffragette Mary Richardson, it soon was fully restored and returned to display.

The Rokeby Venus depicts the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility reclining languidly on her bed, her back to the viewer—in Antiquity, portrayal of Venus from a back view was a common visual and literary erotic motif[8]—and her knees tucked. She is shown without the mythological paraphernalia normally included in depictions of the scene; jewellery, roses, and myrtle are all absent. Unlike most earlier portrayals of the goddess, which show her with blond hair, Velázquez's Venus is a brunette.[7] The female figure can be identified as Venus because of the presence of her son, Cupid.

Venus gazes into a mirror held by Cupid, who is without his usual bow and arrows. When the work was first inventoried, it was described as "a nude woman", probably owing to its controversial nature. Venus looks outward at the viewer of the painting[9] through her reflected image in the mirror. However, the image is blurred and reveals only a vague reflection of her facial characteristics; the reflected image of the head is much larger than it would be in reality.[10] The critic Natasha Wallace has speculated that Venus's indistinct face may be the key to the underlying meaning of the painting, in that "it is not intended as a specific female nude, nor even as a portrayal of Venus, but as an image of self-absorbed beauty."[11] According to Wallace, "There is nothing spiritual about face or picture. The classical setting is an excuse for a very material aesthetic sexuality—not sex, as such, but an appreciation of the beauty that accompanies attraction."[12]

Intertwining pink silk ribbons are draped over the mirror and curl over its frame. The ribbon's function has been the subject of much debate by art historians; suggestions include an allusion to the fetters used by Cupid to bind lovers, that it was used to hang the mirror, and that it was used to blindfold Venus moments before.[7] The critic Julián Gallego found Cupid's facial expression to be so melancholy that he interprets the ribbons as fetters binding the god to the image of Beauty, and gave the painting the title "Amor conquered by Beauty".[13]

The folds of the bed sheets echo the goddess's physical form, and are rendered to emphasise the sweeping curves of her body.[5] The composition mainly uses shades of red, white, and grey, which are used even in Venus's skin; although the effect of this simple colour scheme has been much praised, recent technical analysis has shown that the grey sheet was originally a "deep mauve", that has now faded.[14] The luminescent colours used in Venus's skin, applied with "smooth, creamy, blended handling",[15] contrast with the dark greys and black of the silk she is lying on, and with the brown of the wall behind her face.

The Rokeby Venus is the only surviving nude by Velázquez, but three others by the artist are recorded in 17th-century Spanish inventories. Two were mentioned in the Royal collection, but may have been lost in the 1734 fire that destroyed the main Royal Palace of Madrid. A further one was recorded in the collection of Domingo Guerra Coronel.[17] These records mention "a reclining Venus", Venus and Adonis, and a Psyche and Cupid.[18]

Although the work is widely thought to have been painted from life, the identity of the model is subject to much speculation. In contemporary Spain it was acceptable for artists to employ male nude models for studies; however, the use of female nude models was frowned upon.[19] The painting is believed to have been executed during one of Velázquez's visits to Rome, and Prater has observed that in Rome the artist "did indeed lead a life of considerable personal liberty that would have been consistent with the notion of using a live nude female model".[19] It has been claimed that the painting depicts a mistress Velázquez is known to have had while in Italy, who is supposed to have borne his child.[12] Others have claimed that the model is the same as in Coronation of the Virgin and Las Hilanderas, both in the Museo del Prado, and other works.[16]

The figures of both Venus and Cupid were significantly altered during the painting process, the result of the artist's corrections to the contours as initially painted.[20] Pentimenti can be seen in Venus's upraised arm, in the position of her left shoulder, and on her head. Infra-red reveals that she was originally shown more upright with her head turned to the left.[14] An area on the left of the painting, extending from Venus's left foot to the left leg and foot of Cupid, is apparently unfinished, but this feature is seen in many other works by Velázquez and was probably deliberate.[21] The painting was given a major cleaning and restoration in 1965–66, which showed it to be in good condition, and with very little paint added later by other artists, contrary to what some earlier writers had asserted.

On 10 March 1914, the suffragette Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and attacked Velázquez's canvas with a meat cleaver. Her action was ostensibly provoked by the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day,[62] although there had been earlier warnings of a planned suffragette attack on the collection. Richardson left seven slashes on the painting, particularly causing damage to the area between the figure's shoulders.[17][63] However, all were successfully repaired by the National Gallery's chief restorer Helmut Ruhemann.[12]

Richardson was sentenced to six months' imprisonment, the maximum allowed for destruction of an artwork.[64] In a statement to the Women's Social and Political Union shortly afterwards, Richardson explained, "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."[63][65] She added in a 1952 interview that she didn't like "the way men visitors gaped at it all day long".[66]

The feminist writer Lynda Nead observed, "The incident has come to symbolize a particular perception of feminist attitudes towards the female nude; in a sense, it has come to represent a specific stereotypical image of feminism more generally."[67] Contemporary reports of the incident reveal that the picture was not widely seen as mere artwork. Journalists tended to assess the attack in terms of a murder (Richardson was nicknamed "Slasher Mary"), and used words that conjured wounds inflicted on an actual female body, rather than on a pictorial representation of a female body.[64] The Times described a "cruel wound in the neck", as well as incisions to the shoulders and back.

For reasons of religious scruple, the female nude was rarely represented in Spanish art, although the royal collection was rich in mythological nudes by Titian and other Venetian Renaissance masters. The Toilet of Venus, called the 'Rokeby Venus' after Rokeby Hall in Yorkshire where it hung in the nineteenth century, is the only surviving picture of this kind by Velázquez - one other, now lost, is recorded - and remained unique in Spain until Goya depicted the Naked Maja, which was probably inspired by it. Painted either just before or during Velázquez's second visit to Italy in 1648-52, the Venus was recorded in 1651 in the collection of the young son of Philip IV's prime minister, famous both for his womanising and his patronage of art. He was later to become Marqués of Carpio and later still Viceroy of Naples, and it must have been his standing at court which enabled him to commission such a painting without fear of the Inquisition.

If the subject of this picture is a conflation of the Venetian Renaissance inventions of 'Venus at her mirror with Cupid' and 'Reclining Venus', its all-pervasive theme is reflection. Venus reflects on her beauty, reflected in the mirror; since we can dimly see her face, we know that ours can be seen by her, and she may be thought to reflect on the effect her beauty has on us. Velázquez has reflected long before his canvas and the living model - for this girl, with her small waist and jutting hip, does not resemble the fuller, more rounded Italian nudes inspired by ancient sculpture, and she wears her hair in a modern style. Only the presence of the plumply and innocently deferential Cupid transforms her into a goddess. The painter has moulded her body with infinitely scrupulous and tender gradations of colour, white, pink, grey and muted black and red, and the grey-black satin which reflects on her luminous skin itself shimmers with pearly reflections of flesh-tones. Streaks of pink, white and grey loop in ribbons around the ebony frame of the mirror. Even more astonishing is the single brushstroke, laden with black paint, tracing the line that runs beneath her body from the middle of the back to below her calf. Both the exact notation of appearance and such free and spontaneous touches are the fruit of lengthy meditation and practice.

The very genesis of the painting may have been an act of reflection. The suggestion has been made that it was designed as a harmonious contrast to a nude Danaë (later transformed into a Venus) attributed to Tintoretto. By 1677 both were incorporated, probably as a pair, in the decoration of a ceiling in one of Carpio's palaces. The Danaë-Venus, recently rediscovered in a private collection in Europe, is of nearly identical dimensions and a virtual mirror image of Velázquez's Venus: the figure reclining in a landscape in the same pose, but facing the viewer, and on red drapery. The witty reversal echoes Titian's procedure in the mythological poesie ('poems') painted for Philip IV's grandfather Philip II and still in the royal collection, in which he promised to show the different aspects of the naked female form. But, typically of Velázquez, in this haunting successor to the more sensuous and exuberant Renaissance works, the narrative and the poetry consist in the act of looking and being looked at.

During the Inquisition pictures were censored and artists who painted licentious or immoral paintings were excommunicated, fined very heavily and banished. Rather than punish so notable an artist as Velázquez, his Venus was accepted. Cupid and the face to be seen in the looking-glass were, in all probability, strongly overpainted in the eighteenth century.

The toilet of Venus is a timeless theme of sensuous seduction. You can view other depictions of Venus at Her Toilet in the Web Gallery of Art.

A century ago a painting in the National Gallery was slashed by a suffragette. But what is it about this Velazquez nude that makes it so provocative, asks Tom de Castella.

It's the last word in sensual languor. And one of the most famous bottoms of all time. But 100 years ago the Rokeby Venus was attacked as it hung in the National Gallery. The painting took at least five slashes with a meat chopper. Its attacker, Mary Richardson, a suffragette who later became a disciple of the fascist Oswald Mosley, was protesting against the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. "Slasher Mary", as the press dubbed her, later admitted that it wasn't just the picture's value - £45,000 in 1906 - that made it a target. It was "the way men visitors gaped at it all day long".

It is one of the most erotically charged images of that or indeed any age. "She is seen as the paradigm of female beauty," says Times art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston. An unknown model reclines on a bed with her back to the painter. The bottom has a 3D quality.

"The passages of paint make it seem like the painter is touching her," Campbell-Johnston says. The flirty quality is rounded off by Cupid's mirror, which gives the viewer a sense that she is looking back at them. The face appears much older than her body, notes Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell. "It's a warning about beauty being ephemeral, nothing lasts forever."

There are more revealing nudes. Goya's La Maja Desnuda sends out a message along the lines of "come and get me boys", writer Rowan Pelling suggested on a BBC documentary Velazquez - Private Life of a Masterpiece. Rokeby though is "what you can't quite have and what you don't quite know about" and thus far more desirable. All with a Yorkshire twist. Velazquez painted Toilet of Venus - the painting's more proper name - for Spain's Royal Court in the mid 17th Century. But after the Napoleonic War it popped up in a mansion called Rokeby Park in part of Yorkshire that is now County Durham, before eventually ending up at the National Gallery. It has been faithfully restored since the slashing. Unlike the fleshy nudes of Titian or Rubens, it is a very modern female form. And yet still a million miles from Miley Cyrus's Wrecking Ball.

This is the only surviving example of a female nude by Velázquez. The subject was rare in Spain because it met with the disapproval of the Church.

Venus, the goddess of Love, was the most beautiful of the goddesses, and was regarded as a personification of female beauty. She is shown here with her son Cupid, who holds up a mirror for her to look both at herself and at the viewer.

'The Rokeby Venus' is first recorded in June 1651 in the collection of the Marqués del Carpio, son of the First Minister of Spain. It was probably made for the Marqués and was presumably displayed privately, thus avoiding the censure of the Spanish Inquisition. In the Carpio collection, Velázquez's painting was paired with a 16th-century Venetian picture of a naked nymph in a landscape seen from the front. 

The painting is known as 'The Rokeby Venus' because it was in the Morritt Collection at Rokeby Park, now in County Durham, before its acquisition by the Gallery.