Diego Velázquez's Toilet of Venus (1647-51)—widely known as "The Rokeby Venus"—was removed from display at the National Gallery in London this week after being attacked with hammers by two climate activists from the Just Stop Oil movement. This was not a first. It was, in fact, the third time in nearly 120 years that this strikingly original canvas, by one of the great 17th-century masters, had made headlines, becoming a symbol first of national pride and then of political protest.
The first occasion was the call for action and press publicity around the fund-raising campaign that led to the painting's acquisition in 1906; the second, eight years later, was the sensational attack on the painting by a campaigner for women's suffrage, Mary Richardson, which left the painting severely damaged, after she cut eight gashes in the canvas with a meat cleaver—some longer than others and all in the area depicting the hour-glass-shaped back of the reclining figure of a naked Venus, the eternal goddess of love—leaving the picture in need of repair, restoration and relining with a backing canvas.
On the first occasion, in 1905-06, the picture came to public attention after it was sold, to pay death duties, by the Morritt family of Rokeby (pronounced "rook-be") Hall in Co Durham, UK—who had owned the painting since 1814. It attracted large crowds when put up on show, by its purchaser, the dealer Agnew's, at their gallery on London's Bond Street in November 1905. The interest in the picture (which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1890) and in Velázquez, who had previously suffered generations of critical neglect, had been fuelled by the championing of artists including Édouard Manet, John Singer Sargent—who had copied nine works by Velázquez in the Prado in 1879—and R.A.M. Stevenson, a former pupil of Carolus Duran and an art critic of the Pall Mall Gazette, who wrote a 1895 book on Velázquez read from the perspective of a modern artist. The art historian Bernard Berenson had visited, and admired, the painting at Rokeby in 1896. The Toilet of Venus, an Old Master of rare subject and quality, a picture that had been out of public view for centuries in Spanish private collections and then at Rokeby, had found its audience in the age of Impressionism and the new art criticism.
An artist-supported press campaign in The Times, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express to save "our national Venus" for a British museum—with swirling rumours of outlandish bids from Wilhelm Bode, curator of the newly opened Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Berlin, and the Louvre in Paris, not to mention the great American collectors of the day—fuelled a successful campaign led by the fledgling National Art Collections Fund (NACF, now Art Fund) to raise the enormous sum of £45,000 to enable the charity to buy the painting for the National Gallery, which duly became its owner in March 1906. (The final £5,000 required was a loan from Agnew's guaranteed by King Edward VII, the NACF's future patron.)
The successful acquisition gave a great boost to the three-year-old NACF which—until late in the 20th century, and before its rebranding as Art Fund in 2006—ran the straplines "Saved for the Nation" or "Saving Art for the Nation", a conscious reference to the groundbreaking purchase of the Velázquez Venus. The story of how the painting came to be at the National Gallery—one of its great fin-de-siècle acquisitions, sitting between that of Holbein's The Ambassadors (in 1890) and the Wilton Diptych (in 1929)—is part of what gives it pride of place as a curatorial anchor of the collection. It is also what makes its occasional loan or use at the heart of special National Gallery exhibitions so newsworthy.
The painting has been loaned to the Bowes Museum, Co Durham, for the exhibition Flesh And Spirit. Velazquez and painters in seventeenth century Madrid (1996), just a short distance from Rokeby Hall; to Saved! 100 years of the National Art Collections Fund at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 2003; to the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, in 2005; the Museo del Prado, in Madrid, in 2007-08 (a year after being hung with multiple Velázquez loans to the National Gallery from the Prado); and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, in 2014. There is also a planned loan to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool in May 2024 as part of the National Gallery's bicentennial celebrations.
The suffragette attack
The picture's high profile, the residual memory of its very public acquisition, and its subject matter—in which the goddess of love reclines naked, her figure seen from behind, reclining on a bed admiring herself in a mirror, which is propped up by Cupid (her barely distinguishable reflected features a symbol of vanitas and the passing of time)—led to its second, and most sensational, sojourn in the news headlines.
“I got five lovely shots in,” the suffragette Mary Richardson recalled in an interview with the BBC 47 years after her attack on the Venus on 10 March 1914. After stalking her prey by circling several times through the building, Richardson recalled, she removed a meat cleaver pinned inside her sleeve, feeling lucky to get in a few more blows as the warder mistakenly attributed the sound of breaking glass to a broken skylight. He eventually seized Richardson as she was still “hammering away” at the picture.
Richardson’s assault on the Venus, she said, was a protest against the treatment of the women's suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been arrested the previous day. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history," Richardson told police after the attack, "as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history."
Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline's daughter, later commented: "'The Rokeby Venus' has because of Miss Richardson's act acquired a new human and historic interest. Forever more, this picture will be a sign and a memorial of women's determination to be free." The Richardson attack and its political context were referenced by one of the Stop Oil attackers this week who declared "Women did not get the vote by voting” after attacking the painting's glass with a hammer.
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 historyMary Richardson, women's suffrage activist, 1914
Richardson's attack, and her recorded testimony, were featured in a 2013 Tate Britain exhibition, Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, curated by Tabitha Barber, which examined how the "Rokeby Venus" was just one work targeted by suffragettes at the time as part of a campaign to win women the right to vote. At the Manchester Art Gallery in 1913, a century before, 13 paintings, including Burne-Jones’s Sibylla Delphica (around 1886), had been damaged in an attack. Papers in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), show that in April 1913, faced with threats from suffragettes, museums in Britain were considering banning women. The V&A drew up a list of options for national museums to consider: “It might be necessary for all the museums in London to close their doors entirely to women, in which case joint action would be necessary, and, if any exceptions were to be allowed, it was suggested that there might be some central place where permits could be issued.”
In the end, it was decided to continue to allow women visitors. The following year, two months after Richardson had slashed the Venus, five more works in the National Gallery, by the Italian painter Gentile Bellini, were attacked by an assailant bearing a cane.
In interviews in the 1950s and 1960s Richardson said she had also chosen the Venus as a target because she disliked seeing women used as nudes in paintings, and the picture being "gloated over" by men. She also said she thought the painting was highly prized because of its financial value, while Mrs Pankhurst’s life "counted for nothing".
Appropriating a symbol of beauty
The Toilet of Venus stands out for its daring subject as the only surviving nude by Velázquez, the non-pareil master of oils both in his touchingly human and direct genre pictures and his supremely insightful portraits of Spanish grandees and the Spanish royal family. Like Velazquez's matchless portrait of Pope Innocent X (c1650) in the Doria Pamphilj collection in Rome—the imaginative driver for some of Francis Bacon's most powerful paintings—the Venus has come to be an ideal subject for appropriation by contemporary artists, as a symbol of feminine beauty or a challenge to the artist's gaze, of how a painter sees and is seen.
In 1990 Neil MacGregor, then director of the National Gallery, hung the Venus with Francisco Goya's celebrated Majas—La Maja Desnuda (1795-1800) and the La Maja Vestida (1800-07)—on loan from the Prado. The exhibition was, he told The Art Newspaper, designed to test "the thesis put forward that they had for a long time hung together [in a private collection in Madrid], and that the Goyas were, in a direct sense, a response to Velázquez".
The painting has not always found favour in feminist discourse. In Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie-Smith's Women and art: contested territory (1999), Chicago says she hates "The Rokeby Venus" (while also finding Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus too passive).
In 2005, when George Condo showed his controversial portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, commissioned by Maruizio Cattelan for his Wrong Gallery at Tate Modern, the world was spared a promised variation where the Queen would have been depicted as “a stunning nude… in the style of 'The Rokeby Venus'”.
The Venus continues to have an afterlife in Co Durham, where a full-scale facsimile, by the copyist WA Menzies, still hangs in the magnificent double-height saloon at Rokeby Hall. In October 2014, Auckland Castle (home to Francisco de Zurbarán’s monumental series Jacob and His Twelve Sons, 1640–44), the Bowes Museum (home to an outstanding collection of Spanish paintings), and Durham University organised a symposium Paintings of the Spanish Golden Age: the Collections of County Durham, on the bicentenary of the arrival of The Toilet of Venus at Rokeby Hall.
Great paintings ... articulate in the most subtle ways possible the debates and values of generations. This is what we experience when we look at 'The Rokeby Venus'. Not only is it a rare and valuable work, but it is also a reliquary of historyLynda Nead, art historian, 2003
When Tom Hunter showed his photography at the National Gallery in 2005 in the exhibition Living in Hell and other Stories, he included Lexi, Ye Old Axe (2002) a gritty take on the "Rokeby Venus". A new kind of controversy surrounded the Venus and those who appropriate it when Hunter took against the gallery's suggestion that "guidance was necessary" given the explicit nature of some of his works, hanging a notice that read “Some visitors may find some of the issues confronted in this exhibition disturbing.”
This was an example of how indelible works of art like The Toilet of Venus and Innocent X articulate, as the art historian Lynda Nead put it in a 2003 essay on the Venus and its acquisition, "the debates and values of generations". Nead's article was published to mark the Art Fund's centenary and makes the historical case for how a mid-17th-century masterpiece like the Venus can come to have the contemporary significance it has. "Great paintings gather history to themselves; as they age they grow in importance and articulate in the most subtle ways possible the debates and values of generations," Nead writes. "This is what we experience when we look at 'The Rokeby Venus'. Not only is it a rare and valuable work, but it is also a reliquary of history."