In 1914, Mary smashed a protective glass barrier and then stood and stared for several minutes at Venus at her Mirror. Seemingly mesmerized, she lifted a meat cleaver and slashed the masterpiece. Why would a 1651 piece of art generate such emotion? Militant, Mary Richardson said one reason was that is she didn’t like, “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long” (1). Nude subject matter was rare during the baroque era and Velazquez’s experienced no repercussion to this realism vision. Could the slashing of this masterpiece be a bit of karma over 200 years later? No one knows. Spectators continue attempts to unravel the subtle meaning behind Velazquez’s brief departure from traditional portrait painting.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez was born in 1599, in Seville, Spain. He came from a good family and received fine education and training. At a young age he showed enthusiasm for art and his talent may have been influenced by several men. He apprenticed with Francisco Herrera who disregarded Italian influence and Francisco Pacheco’s who emphasized academically correct representations of subjects according to history. He followed painter Peter Paul Rubens’s recommendation to visit art collections in Italy that he admired. Velazquez’s paintings mainly focused on portraits of the royal family, commoners and noblemen, scenes from the bible and some landscape and still life. His painting style recreated reality in the form of a painted photograph. Captured subjects had a level of dignity and his ability to merge simple colors, light and lines was masterful. In 1624, Velazquez was paid to create a noble portrait of King Philip IV of Spain and instead created a divine contemporary vision of the monarch. Impressed and a great lover of art, King Philip IV retained Velazquez and promised no other artist would paint his portrait. A lifetime involvement, influence and friendship with the Spanish Court began and Velazquez was rewarded with free lodging and medical, plus many royal commissions. Thanks to King Philip IV, Velazquez was well off and he produced art to suit the monarchy. “During this time, King Philip was visiting the painter almost daily in his studio in the palace, resulting in some 40 portraits of the king plus portraits of other members of the Royal Family…” (2).
Velazquez painted Venus at her Mirror, which was completed around 1647-1651, during a trip to Italy. It is also known as The Toilet of Venus, Rokeby Venus or Venus and Cupid. It is the only surviving female nude portrait painted by the artist. Nude and brunette, Venus is reclining on a bed and is viewed from her back side. She has a small waist and curvy hips, which was a departure from the robust nudes of the time. She is gazing into a mirror held by Cupid and pink silk ribbons are draped on the mirror frame and Cupid. Composition simply utilized mostly shades of red, white, black and grey. The creamy, smooth and luminescent white color caressing Venus’ skin is a dramatic contrast to the black, grey and brown accents of the room. The use or portrayal of nude females during this time was frowned upon, paintings could be seized by the Inquisition and artists could be fined or banished. Void of these fears as painter for King Philip IV, Velazquez, “did indeed lead a life of considerable personal liberty that would have been consistent with the notion of using a live nude female model” (3). It has been suggested that King Philip IV kept this painting in his personal collection, away from the public eye and possibly the Inquisition.
This private moment of intimacy creates a comfortable atmosphere for viewing and exploring this portrait. I find the overall simplicity of this masterpiece very refreshing and attractive. The skin color of the nude female radiates warmth against black linens, she wears no jewelry and her hair is neatly up. The dark room is void of distractions, creating intense focus toward the sensual lines of the female. It has been debated that it is physically impossible for Venus to see her own reflection in the mirror and even if she did, her head size is all wrong. But these anomalies create greater interest for me and bring curiosity as to why every brushstroke was taken. It took courage for Velazquez to venture outside of his comfort zone, sparking speculation that Venus was his mistress. Holding the mirror for the beauty of his world, Cupid proves he is a little man and shows his innocence as he is distracted by silky pink ribbon. The adventurousness that Velazquez painted in this piece only confirms that he was the leading artist of the Baroque era. This painting is currently on display at the National Gallery located in London, United Kingdom.
1- Diego Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus by Suzanne Hill, 2008
2- Top Tour of Spain
5- The Venus effect: What we see in the mirror isn’t what would really be there. By Dave Munger, 2009