In Conversation with Venus at the National Gallery

Last updated on September 21st, 2022

I’m Venus at Her Mirror, but some people call me the Rokeby Venus or the Toilet of Venus. You can just call me Venus. The little fellow holding my mirror and helping me with my toilette  is my son, Cupid. Maestro Diego Velasquez’s bold brushstrokes poured life into this, my divine facsimile, in the seventeenth century. My would-be destructor in 1914 was the suffragette Mary Richardson. But more on her later. You can find me in Room 30 of London’s National Gallery next to some other fine Spanish masterpieces. Come and say hola when you are next in town.

Rokeby Venus, Venus at her Mirror, National Gallery

The Rokeby Venus, National Gallery

I was painted sometime between 1647 and 1651, possibly on Diego Velasquez’s visit to Rome. I am his only surviving nude. My earthly maker was originally from Seville, but he was invited to come and work under the patronage of Philip IV in 1624. He would become the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.

Diego Velasquez

Diego Velasquez (Wikimedia)

I’m a popular gal. Rubens, Titian and Veronese also captured my fleshy likeness but unlike them, Velazquez doesn’t actually show my face. I like it that way, as my immortal self never ages. And you know as well as I do that my fairness is nigh impossible to convey.

Venus effect, Rokeby Venus, Venus at Her Mirror, National Gallery

The Venus effect

Clever Velazquez used the Venus effect, creating the optical illusion that I am looking at myself. This is technically impossible given the angle of the mirror. Perhaps Velazquez simply wanted my rapturous beauty to be in your mind’s eye rather than in his. Am I am looking at you, or am I looking at my maker?

People say I am sumptuous, mysterious, powerful, enigmatic and sexy. Do you like what you see?  I fancy my tush is the best one in town, but some people don’t approve of my saucy self being at the mercy of the world’s gaze. It’s a miracle I even exist, as the Spanish Inquisition forbade such a flagrant show of flesh. But Velazquez painted this for a private collector, and it never saw the light of day in court. And besides, Philip IV was a secret hoarder of nudes, so he probably would have been ok with my dishevelled self.

From 1682 to 1688, I went to live with the art collector and Casanova, Gasper Méndez de Haro. He also owned a Titian and a Tintoretto, no less. I then resided with Charles IV of Spain’s bestie, Manuel de Godoy, who hung me next to two Goyas. Well, we all know who the star of the show was.

By 1813, I was hanging out at Rokeby Park in county Durham. Then in 1905, Art Fund UK raised the money so that my splendiferous curves could be relocated to the National Gallery. I was sold for a whopping £45,000. His Majesty King Edward VII even contributed £8000 towards me (well, we know how much he liked his ladies!) The Daily Express dubbed me the “Nation’s Venus:” I was the most expensive acquisition to-date for the National Gallery.

I was shaken and a little stirred by what happened to me in 1914. It was just after 10am and I was perched on an easel in Room 17. Mary Richardson or “Slasher Mary” as she would come to be known, entered the National Gallery with a meat chopper concealed in her clothes. One of the attendants in our room heard smashing of glass and believed that a skylight above had shattered. Instead, it was my protective covering that was smashed. She then went on to slash my neck, my back and the curve of my celestial hip.

Mary Richardson was restrained and arrested, and sentenced to 6 months in prison for attempting to destroy me. Fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested the day previous, and Richardson claimed this to be a retaliation. She later confessed that she didn’t like the way male visitors looked at me all day.

Mary Richardson, Rokeby Venus, National Gallery

Suffragette Mary Richardson

I rather like the attention, if I’m honest. I wish Richardson hadn’t lacerated me so, but I do sympathise with her cause. Great women have to stick together. And in any event, I was brilliantly restored by Helmut Ruhemann, (thank you Helmut). You would be hard pressed to see any of my old wounds.

“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.” (Mary Richardson on the Rokeby Venus)

The suffragettes would carry on their destructive campaign with 14 further attacks, including works at the Royal Academy, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery.

“I have been a student, and perhaps care as much for art as anyone who was in the Gallery on Tuesday morning, but I care more for justice than I do for art” (Mary Richardson on the Rokeby Venus)

The long and short of it is, the National Gallery was closed for two weeks after this mischievous incident. Of course, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to how long we’ve been closed since these blasted lockdowns have started.

I’m bored and I’m lonely, and I miss all you lovely people staring at me through my looking glass. Hopefully, you will be back soon. And when you are, look but don’t even think about touching. I might have to set my Cupid on you if you get any fresh ideas.

Hasto pronto.

You can find the Rokeby Venus and her sidekick, Cupid, in Room 30 at the National Gallery in London.

Sources: The British Newspaper Archives, Wikipedia, National Gallery

A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

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