VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)

Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus)

Oil on canvas, 122,5 x 177 cm
National Gallery, London

For reasons of religious scruple, the female nude was rarely represented in Spanish art, although the royal collection was rich in mythological nudes by Titian and other Venetian Renaissance masters. The Toilet of Venus, called the 'Rokeby Venus' after Rokeby Hall in Yorkshire where it hung in the nineteenth century, is the only surviving picture of this kind by Velázquez - one other, now lost, is recorded - and remained unique in Spain until Goya depicted the Naked Maja, which was probably inspired by it. Painted either just before or during Velázquez's second visit to Italy in 1648-52, the Venus was recorded in 1651 in the collection of the young son of Philip IV's prime minister, famous both for his womanising and his patronage of art. He was later to become Marqués of Carpio and later still Viceroy of Naples, and it must have been his standing at court which enabled him to commission such a painting without fear of the Inquisition.

If the subject of this picture is a conflation of the Venetian Renaissance inventions of 'Venus at her mirror with Cupid' and 'Reclining Venus', its all-pervasive theme is reflection. Venus reflects on her beauty, reflected in the mirror; since we can dimly see her face, we know that ours can be seen by her, and she may be thought to reflect on the effect her beauty has on us. Velázquez has reflected long before his canvas and the living model - for this girl, with her small waist and jutting hip, does not resemble the fuller, more rounded Italian nudes inspired by ancient sculpture, and she wears her hair in a modern style. Only the presence of the plumply and innocently deferential Cupid transforms her into a goddess. The painter has moulded her body with infinitely scrupulous and tender gradations of colour, white, pink, grey and muted black and red, and the grey-black satin which reflects on her luminous skin itself shimmers with pearly reflections of flesh-tones. Streaks of pink, white and grey loop in ribbons around the ebony frame of the mirror. Even more astonishing is the single brushstroke, laden with black paint, tracing the line that runs beneath her body from the middle of the back to below her calf. Both the exact notation of appearance and such free and spontaneous touches are the fruit of lengthy meditation and practice.

The very genesis of the painting may have been an act of reflection. The suggestion has been made that it was designed as a harmonious contrast to a nude Danaë (later transformed into a Venus) attributed to Tintoretto. By 1677 both were incorporated, probably as a pair, in the decoration of a ceiling in one of Carpio's palaces. The Danaë-Venus, recently rediscovered in a private collection in Europe, is of nearly identical dimensions and a virtual mirror image of Velázquez's Venus: the figure reclining in a landscape in the same pose, but facing the viewer, and on red drapery. The witty reversal echoes Titian's procedure in the mythological poesie ('poems') painted for Philip IV's grandfather Philip II and still in the royal collection, in which he promised to show the different aspects of the naked female form. But, typically of Velázquez, in this haunting successor to the more sensuous and exuberant Renaissance works, the narrative and the poetry consist in the act of looking and being looked at.

During the Inquisition pictures were censored and artists who painted licentious or immoral paintings were excommunicated, fined very heavily and banished. Rather than punish so notable an artist as Velázquez, his Venus was accepted. Cupid and the face to be seen in the looking-glass were, in all probability, strongly overpainted in the eighteenth century.

The toilet of Venus is a timeless theme of sensuous seduction. You can view other depictions of Venus at Her Toilet in the Web Gallery of Art.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.