The Toilet of Venus The Rokeby Venus

by Alain Chivilò


The famous nude by the Spanish artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Seville 6/6/1599 – Madrid 6/8/1660) created between 1647-51, on show at the National Gallery in London.

The painting lives on different perspective levels, becoming a balanced and calibrated work. Although the nude may appear visibly easy as a composition for some (taking for granted a technique possessed), this is not really the case: the artwork in its complexity becomes a meaningfull composition.

Five scenes on the canvas can be identified: the nude Venus, the mirror, Cupid intent on holding it, the fabrics and a wall in dim light.

Inevitably the female body, positioned on back and lying horizontally without veils, attracts direct attention. Venus is young, not tall, in line with a seventeenth-century physique with a white complexion and hair tending towards red brown. Her feet are sketchy and undefined. The position is turned towards a mirror in which Velázquez paints a face in light-dark: indefinite in her physiognomy, devoid of personality, the Goddess is admired in her millenary freshness.

Venus is a myth, therefore for the Spanish painter it is not necessary to make her recognizable in a sort of ideal identification. Everyone has their own Venus to take inspiration from. The body highlighted from behind is contrasted in the shadow with her reflected face with undefined lineaments.

The mirror is held by Cupid who supports it with two clasped hands and at the same time a ribbon joins in the center in a hanger. Eros is winged, a child face whose body is not placed in brightness. The right wing stands out, on a pictorial level the left foot is incomplete, while a cold colored ribbon is tied over the shoulder.

All around, four types of fabric rotate between drapes, scarves and sheets, becoming a scenography with a portion of the wall in dim lighting.

The work is a tribute to femininity and allows a degree of eroticism that varies and is instilled in the observer. A seventeenth-century woman who, in the figure of Venus, becomes aware of her role between main subject, seduction and something illicit. On the other hand, we have the privilege, thanks to the maestro, of entering a private and intimate place which for that time is a factor not to be underestimated.

The oil on canvas, The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’), 122.5 x 177 cm, was exhibited in Rokeby Park, an eighteenth-century private residence designed by the owner Sir Thomas Robinson (1702-77) and built between 1725 -30.

Diego Velázquez’s work was purchased by J.B.S. Morritt (1771-1843), son of J.S. Morritt who bought the villa in 1769 from the Robinson family. The Morritt heirs subsequently sold the Venus to the National Gallery London in 1906. A copy made by the painter William Allan Menzies (1865-1929), mounted in its original frame, still hangs today in the hall of the residence.

Rokeby can be visited (new opening scheduled for 6/5/2024) with also overnight stays in an area used as tourist cottages. It is situated three miles south east of Barnard Castle, Durham County.

Today, the National Gallery in London is the museum that allows the free display of Velázquez’s work (Room 30), with infinite masterpieces of art history.


©AC, NDSL, AM, Alain Chivilo

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