The artist Diego Velazquez (b. 1599–d. 1660) and Rembrandt van Rijn were contemporaries and the greatest painters of their respective countries, Catholic Spain and Protestant Netherlands. Likely they never saw each other’s works, yet they had many similarities in their conceptions of light and shadow, powerfully abstracted compositions, human empathy, and an interest in myths and realism. The influence of the Italian Renaissance migrated west and north and influenced young Spanish and Dutch artists. While Rembrandt would not have felt censored in the north, Velazquez was painting in the middle of the three-centuries-old Spanish Inquisition, infamous for its corporal penalties for heresy. There was also the hypocritical divide between the royalty, the church, and the people, with a different set of standards and morals for each group. Velazquez was the top court painter and under the protection of King Philip IV, but he would have been keenly aware of looming torture if he took too much artistic license.
The Spanish Inquisition forced Muslims and Jews to renounce their faiths and become Catholics. Not trusting they would comply privately, the Inquisition looked for any small signs of deviation to accuse them of heresy. It also had severe punishments for humanist deviants. The Inquisition could torture for any perceived transgression, like eating meat on the wrong days. Velazquez had the King’s protection, but he served at the King’s pleasure. There would be no quarter for him to escape to and still paint—or even remain alive to tell the tale—if he incurred the King’s wrath.
The constraints on Velazquez were enormous, and yet he managed to be one of the greatest artists of the human spirit. Dwarfs were part of the Royal household and Velazquez painted their portraits, imbuing them with a dignity rarely found in even the world’s greatest portraits. He turned mythological stories into group portraits of local everyday people. The Triumph of Bacchus portrays a group of day workers celebrating with wine; with one sunburned man beaming with joy and smiling ear to ear after a hard day of outdoor labor. He turned what could have been a hopelessly boring Royal family portrait, Las Meninas, into arguably the greatest painting ever painted. With its intricately complex composition of dwarfs, animals, mirrors, the Royal couple and their children, and, ingeniously, Velazquez himself painting it. It is like everyone’s family circus painted with empathy and care; it seems to say, “We are a crazy family but it is my family and I love them.”
Velazquez is known to have painted two nudes, one lost, and this Venus at her Mirror. It was painted on his trip to Italy, far away from the Inquisitor’s eyes. It is listed in the collection of Gaspar Méndez de Haro, who at different times was the Spanish Governor of Flanders, Ambassador in Rome, and Viceroy of Naples; he was also known for being from a libertine family. De Haro was an international personage that would have had freedoms not enjoyed by the Spanish populace.
Velazquez’s Venus is a painting of a toned, nude young woman seen from the back with a mirror reflecting her face, alongside a life-like cupid, an affectation of many mythological paintings. But if we put the cupid’s wings aside, the scene takes on a touching quality of human universality. Velazquez would have painted the woman and the young child from life. I would bet you anything that this beautiful Italian model was a young mom with her child in tow. And though the mirror was a common device of Venus at her bath, I would speculate that since the model was facing away from the artist, the mirror gave her a feeling of safety by being able to watch what the artist was doing behind her back.
The tones and hues of her body are beautifully varied while simultaneously conveying her shape and luminosity. Notice the curves of both her torso and the child’s. Notice the dark rich shadows that flow beside those curves. Long before photography Velazquez mastered blocking out shadows in an abstract way that foreshadows photography. The shadow that curves around the kid’s torso and thigh and the shadow under her thigh and butt are a powerful feat of abstraction. A very sensual element to the painting is the lit area surrounding her earlobe, the soft fleshy area where her jaw meets the nape of her neck. Along with her hair pulled up, the combination is what most heterosexual men and lesbians will say is one of the most beautiful, delicate, and alluring features of a woman. It is for good reason that a woman will use that wily device of asking her mate to clip the clasp of her necklace to display this attribute to perfection, as Velazquez does here.
Venus at her Mirror represents my concept of the sublime: An integration of idealism, natural realism, authenticity, a beautifully balanced female figure metaphorically representing physically and mentally a healthy vivaciousness, elegant balances, and a nonchalant and unself-conscious confidence. It might capture a brief moment of physical perfection, but it represents what it means to be a beautiful woman inside and out.
And this Venus triggered the sexually repressed, arsonist, Blackshirt fascist, and pseudo-suffragette Mary Richardson to slash it.
In 1914 Mary Richardson strolled into London National Gallery’s imposing monumental viewing room with its magnificent skylight, brocaded wallpaper, and polished parquet floors, approached the 265-year-old Velazquez masterpiece, Venus at her Mirror, waited until no one was near by, pulled out a primitive butcher’s axe and viciously and repeatedly slashed the delicately painted back, shoulder, and hip of Venus. The shocked guard slipped on the polished floor or he could have lessened the harm.
The following day The Times quoted Mary Richardson: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest … If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy … the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.”
Like many con artists, pedophiles, murderers, goons, and politicians who try to hide behind idealistic movements, Maleficent Mary put up a smokescreen that she was merely a soldier of the women’s suffrage movement. But a review of her life doesn’t lend itself to the idealist’s quest for positive political change. She had been arrested nine times for several successful arson attacks, bombing a railroad station, and the slashing of the Venus.
She was born British, but soon thereafter moved to Canada with her mother, where she was brought up by her “puritan” grandparents. It is interesting to note that the majority of arsonists show signs of giddy excitement for lighting fires as children. Her grandparents, most likely petrified at the thought of being torched to death in their sleep, sent the unbalanced 16-year-old halfway around the world back to England; ironically to study art! Undoubtedly not the last family to send a demented family member as far away as humanly possible.
Richardson writes about the first arson attack, at least the first one she was caught doing: “I took the things from her and went on to the mansion. The putty of one of the ground-floor windows was old and broke away easily, and I had soon knocked out a large pane of the glass. When I climbed inside into the blackness it was a horrible moment. The place was frighteningly strange and pitch dark, smelling of damp and decay… A ghastly fear took possession of me; and, when my face wiped against a cobweb, I was momentarily stiff with fright. But I knew how to lay a fire––I had built many a campfire in my young days––and that part of the work was simple and quickly done. I poured the inflammable liquid over everything; then I made a long fuse of twisted cotton wool, soaking that too as I unwound it and slowly made my way back to the window at which I had entered … I climbed outside before setting a light to the fuse. For a moment I stood and watched the tiny flame run a few feet; then I hurried off to find the gap in the thorn hedge.”
If one reads between the lines, the act of arson could easily be misplaced sexual transference of a repressed virgin on her first forbidden illicit tryst: The putty broken away, the knocked pane of glass, the dark and damp smells, possession of fear, stiff with fright, laying a fire, unwinding a long fuse, lighting it, all simply and quickly done, and then graced with thorns.
In her three years of serving prison sentences, she went on hunger strikes, and the hapless directors, not sure what to do, force fed her with feeding tubes––a violation worthy of the symbolism of being raped by the male-dominated institutions. Of course, she could have just eaten her dinner like any normal person. Mary Richardson had never married, though she adopted a boy. After one bout of prison she was sheltered by another suffragette, to whom she wrote a collection of poems Symbol Songs: Songs of Spirit Intimation with the dedication: The Translation of the Love I Bear Lillian Dove.
Presumably she was a Victorian lesbian. Looking at her act of slashing the Venus at her Mirror, takes on a fascinating descent into self-hatred. She wasn’t destroying the painting for any noble cause: it was a frustrated rebellion against evolving into a worthy human being. She wasn’t eliminating a painting, she was eradicating any merger element of humanity left within her.
Like too many people who are destroyers and criminals at heart, she ran for political office in 1922. Thankfully she didn’t make headway. Maleficent Mary then went on to join the Nazi-saluting British Union of Fascists, otherwise known as the Blackshirts, and in 1934 became the leader of its woman’s division. Her directorship was short-lived and she retreated to relative seclusion in Hastings. In 1953 she wrote an autobiographical apologia, Laugh a Defiance. British historian Hilda Kean [in her article, “Some Problems of Constructing and Reconstructing a Suffragette’s Life: Mary Richardson, Suffragette, Socialist, and Fascist,”] questions Richardson’s credibility, motives, and truthfulness. “She appears to reveal much in the sense of describing illegal activities but in reality discloses very little, other than a penchant for creating exciting yarns … For her the suffrage movement was indeed a fruitful source of myth, which she developed in different guises on different occasions. But her writing about suffrage also seems to have had a personal rationale. She used suffrage stories to construct an identity of constancy and stability in a life characterised by dislocation, disruption and political and personal change.”
In 1961, Richardson died.
In 1934, while Mary Richardson was high-fiving Blackshirt fascists with the Nazi stiff-arm heiling salute, a German immigrant, art restorer Helmut Ruhemann, carefully and superbly repaired the damage Richardson had done to Venus at her Mirror. Ruhemann, who opposed Hitler and the Nazis, had escaped the National Socialists and migrated to England with his family when Hitler came to power in 1933. British art dealers and directors kept him busy with work on important paintings. During World War II the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery sent many paintings to Wales and entrusted Ruhemann with their safekeeping. He gained a reputation as a leader in modern techniques of using x-rays and completely removing discolored varnishes from old paintings restoring their natural luster as the original artists intended.
In 1969 he was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire, given to individuals for having a prominent role at a national level. He continued on at the National Gallery until 1972 and died the following year at 82.
What a beautiful illustration of those who mind.