The Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Velazquez
The Rokeby Venus (1647-51)
Name: The Rokeby Venus (1647-51)
The leading figure during the era of Spanish Baroque art, Velazquez excelled in all genres including, narrative history painting and genre painting, as well as portrait art for the Spanish court. Spain was a strong supporter of Catholic Counter-Reformation art and was determined to combat the spread of Protestantism. As a result, Spanish painting was heavily influenced by religious scruples, a policy which was policed by the Spanish Inquisition, which meant that female nudes were strongly discouraged, unless painted for royalty or other influential nobles. Fortunately for Baroque art, The Rokeby Venus appears to have been commissioned by the famous aristocratic womanizer Gaspar Mendez de Haro, 7th Marquis of Carpio and a close associate of King Philip IV. Completed in all probability during the artist's second visit to Italy in 1648-52, it is his only surviving nude, although three others by him are mentioned in 17th-century Spanish art collections - a Reclining Venus, a Venus and Adonis, and a Psyche and Cupid. Two were in the Royal collection, but were burned in the 1734 fire that destroyed the Royal Alcazar Palace of Madrid. A third was recorded in the collection of the Spanish painter Domingo Guerra Coronel (c.1595-1651).
The Rokeby Venus (named after Rokeby Park, the home of its 19th century owner John Morritt) is also referred to as "The Toilet of Venus", "Venus at her Mirror", "Venus and Cupid". It depicts Venus (goddess of Love and the personification of female beauty) reclining languidly in a sensual pose on her bed, looking into a mirror held by her son Cupid (god of physical love). The composition is actually a combination of two models popularized by the Venetian Renaissance - 'Reclining Venus' and 'Venus at her mirror with Cupid'.
Since the picture was probably painted in Rome, a more liberal city than Madrid, it is thought to have been painted from life, although the identity of the model remains unclear. Some scholars claim she was Velazquez' mistress; others believe she is the same person that appeared in Velazquez's Coronation of the Virgin (1642) and The Spinners (Las Hilanderas) (1644-57) also known as The Fable of Arachne, both in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
Famous Venuses that may have inspired Velazquez include: Sleeping Venus (1510, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) by Giorgione and Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence) by Titian, although they are shown from the front, whereas The Rokeby Venus is shown reclining with her back to the viewer. Velazquez's principal patron, King Philip IV, possessed several (mythological) female nudes by the likes of Titian and Rubens, so Velazquez would have felt quite safe painting such a picture. Nonetheless, he may have decided to depict Venus from behind in order to avoid the necessity of exposing her breasts - a state of affairs completely unknown to Spanish Baroque artists of the 1630s and 40s. Interestingly, in Haro's collection, The Rokeby Venus was twinned with its mirror-image, a 16th century Reclining Nude in a Landscape - now in the National Gallery, London - which was attributed to the school of Venetian painting, after Tintoretto.
Interestingly, The Rokeby Venus is depicted as a brunette, not a blonde, and she wears her hair in a modern style. Furthermore, in contrast to the more voluptuous Venus at the Mirror (1614-5, Liechtenstein Museum) by Rubens, and Venus with a Mirror (1555, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) by Titian, she has a more slender figure, and has none of the usual mythological accessories, like jewellery, roses or myrtle. Even Cupid is without his usual bow and arrows. The active use of a mirror was not uncommon in High Renaissance art, since Lorenzo Lotto, Titian and Girolamo Savoldo all used one, as did the Baroque painter Rubens. Most, if not all, all these Venuses would have been familiar to Velazquez.
Art critics consider that a key theme of The Rokeby Venus - like that of his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656, Prado) is reflection. Venus reflects on her beauty, which itself is reflected in the mirror. Moreover, we know that Venus is able to see a reflection of the viewer's face in her mirror. The whole work involves the act of looking and being looked at. But exactly what Velazquez intends by this remains unclear. Is he contrasting the illusion of art (the blurred image of Venus in the mirror) with the reality of life? Or is he hinting that Venus (Spain) is too self-absorbed in her own beauty (too self-satisfied with her Catholic piety)? The real meaning of The Rokeby Venus remains frustratingly out of reach.
Another mystery concerns the function of the pink silk ribbons, draped over the mirror. Are they an allusion to the bindings used by Cupid to control lovers, or were they used to blindfold Venus?
The creases of the satin bed sheets imitate Venus's reclining form, emphasizing the contours of her body. The shimmering whites, pinks and greys used on her skin are in sharp contrast to the dark grey and black of the sheets, although it is worth noting that the dark-grey sheet was originally a rich mauve before it faded. Note also the single stroke of black paint that runs underneath her body from the middle of the back to just below her calf.
Velazquez's portrayal of Venus from behind was not uncommon in the art of classical antiquity, but a rarity during the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque. Since then however, the pose has appeared in neoclassical painting - see, for instance, The Valpincon Bather (1808, Louvre) by J.A.D. Ingres - and in several works of modern art - see, for example, Olympia (1863, Musee d'Orsay) by Edouard Manet. Since The Rokeby Venus was kept out of public view until the 1850s, its influence was until then quite restricted. Indeed it is not known to have been copied, engraved or otherwise reproduced until 1857. In 1890 it was displayed in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and, from 1906, at the National Gallery, London, whereupon it quickly acquired an international reputation. In 1914 it was badly damaged by the feminist suffragette Mary Richardson, although it was fully repaired by the gallery's chief picture restorer Helmut Ruhemann (1891-1973).
Beheading Holofernes (1620) Artemisia Gentileschi.
Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618) by Rubens.
of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin.
in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin.
Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) by Rembrandt.
of St Ignatius (1688-94) by Andrea Pozzo.
For more mythological history paintings by Baroque artists, see: Homepage.
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