Venus in View
- United Kingdom
More informationMarking the centenary of the attack by the militant suffragette Mary Richardson on one of the greatest nudes ever painted, Diego Velázquez's masterpiece 'The Rokeby Venus', Mari Griffiths examines Richardson's reasons for targeting the work, and looks at the way the event was reported at the time.
One of the finest works of the Spanish Golden Age and the only surviving nude by Velázquez, The Rokeby Venus was painted during the Spanish Inquisition, escaped censorship, was brought to Britain, and was the first artwork to be saved for the nation by the National Art Collections Fund in 1906. In what became one of the most famous and symbolic acts of 20th century iconoclasm, on March 10th, 1914, the painting was badly damaged by Mary Richardson in the National Gallery in London. In a statement she said that she had "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". Emmeline Pankhurst was in Holloway Prison at the time and with suffragettes including Richardson herself being subjected to force-feeding in prison, humiliation, intimidation and violence, Richardson said she was attempting to point to the hypocrisy of a society which would value an inert object over a human life. She gained little sympathy from the broader public, and received a mauling from the Press. She also varied her statements over time on the subject. Her autobiography of 1953 sets out her version of events and her reasons for attacking the painting, but it appears that that book doesn't tell the whole story. By the time of a BBC archive interview recorded in 1961, the year of her death, her reasons given include "I hate women being used cheaply as nudes. I'd seen men gloating over that picture". She also mentions in the interview that the judge sentencing her was almost in tears at only being able to give her 6 months in jail.
Art historian Mari Griffith has lectured on the Rokeby Venus, and to