In 1914, a Feminist Attacked a Velázquez Nude with a Meat Cleaver

Alina Cohen
Nov 27, 2018 7:27PM

The greatest argument for an artwork’s potency may be the calls for its destruction. During the Culture Wars of the 1990s, for example, police attempted to have Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs destroyed, helping to cement his legacy as a crusader for queer visibility. After Hannah Black wrote a letter to the curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial recommending that Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016)—a depiction of Emmett Till’s battered face—“be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum,” it became one of the most widely discussed paintings of the past 10 years. And in 1914, one of the world’s most famous works of art—Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece The Toilet of Venus (1647–51), otherwise known as The Rokeby Venus—was not just threatened, but suffered real vandalism—an event that has only enhanced its legendary status.

Velázquez himself painted during a restrictive era. The Catholic Church in Spain limited how artists could represent religious material (no angels without wings; no uncovered feet for the Virgin Mary) and discouraged portrayals of female nudes. The rules didn’t always apply, however, to the ruling classes. It’s most likely that a member of the nobility commissioned The Rokeby Venus, now one of the most iconic allegorical nudes. Otherwise, the work’s sensuality would have been deeply frowned upon. Almost 400 years later, the painting still seduces—no small feat in our significantly more sexually liberated times.

Photo of Mary Richardson, taken by a Scotland Yard detective. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


At the center of The Rokeby Venus, the eponymous Roman goddess of love faces away from the viewer, reclining across a bed covered with a silky gray blanket. Dynamic, upward sweeping lines define the contours of her body, which dramatically curves out at the hip, in at the stomach, and out again at the shoulder. Her body dictates the frame; the painting’s edges begin at her foot and end at her elbow. Venus’s son, Cupid, holds a mirror up so that she—and the viewer—can see her face, but her visage is shadowed and blurry, a significant contrast to the lightness and precision with which Velázquez renders the rest of her form. “We know nothing, and are extremely unlikely ever to know anything, about the model,” Rijksmuseum curator Duncan Bull wrote to Artsy. “We have no details about Velázquez’s thinking, except that he was obviously combining two distinct pictorial subjects, the Reclining Venus and the Toilet of Venus.”

Indeed, Velázquez was working from a long tradition of depicting the goddess lounging or looking at herself. Yet his compositional strategies make his version particularly sultry. It’s difficult not to focus on Venus’s bottom, which the painter situates directly at the center of the canvas. By spotlighting this part of her anatomy, Velázquez objectifies his subject’s sexual appeal and turns the viewer into a voyeur. Turned away, Venus is unable to respond or react to onlookers. She doesn’t have much agency within the painting, either, unable to even hold the mirror up for herself. If the painting is a masterpiece, it’s hardly a cry for gender equity or expansive conceptions of female beauty.

In other words, Canadian suffragette–cum–art vandal Mary Richardson had reason for complaint. She joined the British contingent of the feminist movement in 1910, advocating for women’s right to vote. Richardson wasn’t content just to rally, though. The militant journalist and art student instead adopted tactics of civil disobedience. According to scholar Julie Gottlieb, Richardson was also a noted arsonist. Police arrested her on nine occasions, and she spent time in prison. So did feminist leader Emmeline Pankhurst, whose 1914 arrest Richardson felt obliged to protest. This time, she resorted to a new scheme.

Women “black-shirts” from Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists on parade in Liverpool give the fascist salute. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images.

On March 10, 1914, Richardson walked into London’s National Gallery and slashed Velázquez’s canvas multiple times with a meat cleaver. “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,” she later explained. Ironically, perhaps, the damage looked like a violent attack on the woman herself; the knife markings sliced across Venus’s back and hip.

Richardson received a six-month jail sentence as punishment. In prison, she promptly went on a hunger strike (a common tactic for incarcerated suffragettes at the time), managing to secure her release after just a few weeks. Meanwhile, the National Gallery closed for two weeks while the institution’s chief restorer, Helmut Ruhemann, quickly and expertly restored the painting.

After British women won the right to vote in 1918, Richardson’s politics took an insidious turn. According to Gottlieb’s book Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement, 1923–45, Richardson joined the fascist Blackshirts group in 1933. Apparently, she found the party’s discipline and dramatic action attractive and, the next year, created the National Club for Fascist Women in London. Fascism, however, turned out to be less amenable to her feminist beliefs than she originally believed. In 1935, the British Union of Fascists expelled her for spearheading a meeting regarding gender equality within the movement. She was calling for equal wages.

In more ways than one, Richardson’s actions were at odds with her desired political outcomes. Destroying a painting didn’t help the suffrage movement—it just made her seem erratic. By later uniting with the fascists, Richardson chose to ignore a despicable belief system for empty promises of fair treatment. Her story thus seems less about female empowerment than misguided motivations. She’s best remembered not as a successful champion of women’s rights, but as a wacky extremist who played a small role in the history of art, her name forever tied to that of a man: Velázquez.

Alina Cohen