During the 17th century, Spanish painting was controlled by religious scruples and policed by the Spanish Inquisition. Accordingly, depiction of female nudes was strongly discouraged and was extremely rare, unless painted for royalties or other influential nobles. It is thus not surprising that Rokeby Venus is the only surviving female nude, painted by Diego Velazquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, which he completed between 1647 and 1651. Probably it survived, as it was supposed to be commissioned by the famous aristocratic womanizer Gaspar Mendez de Haro, the 7th Marquis of Carpio and a close associate of King Philip IV. It was hung in the houses of Spanish courtiers until 1813, when it was brought to England by its19th century owner John Morritt.
Initially, it was titled ‘Toilet of Venus’, which is a more proper name for Spain's Royal Court in the mid 17th Century. However, after the Napoleonic War it popped up in the mansion of its owner called Rokeby Park in Yorkshire and was named after it.
Apart from The Toilet of Venus, Rokeby Venus is also known as Venus at her Mirror, Venus and Cupid, or La Venus del espejo. It is considered by many critics as the last word in sensual languor and one of the most erotically charged images of that or indeed any age. It depicts Venus, the goddess of Love and the personification of female beauty, reclining languidly in a sensual posture on her bed, with her back to the viewer and her knees tucked, while looking into a mirror held by her son Cupid, the god of erotic love. In contrast to the more voluptuous Venus depicted by Titian and Rubens, she has a slender figure and devoid of all the usual mythological accessories, like jewellery, roses or myrtle.
Interestingly, unlike the earlier portrayals of the goddess, Velázquez's Venus is a brunette, not a blonde and she wears her hair in a modern style. Moreover, the female figure can be identified as Venus because of the presence of Cupid, though he is without his usual bow and arrows.
In the painting, Venus looks at the viewer through the mirror, while her image is reflected in the mirror. Surprisingly, her reflected image in the mirror is not clear and sharp. It is blurred and reveals only a vague reflection of her facial characteristics. Moreover, the head of the reflected image seems to be much larger than it would be in reality. It was suggested that the indistinct and blurred image of Venus in the mirror may be the key to the underlying meaning of the painting. It is possible that it was not intended by the artist to be a specific female nude, not even as a portrayal of Venus, but as the image of an absent-minded beauty. She is often described as looking at her image on the mirror and is absorbed in her beauty. But, that is physically impossible since viewers can see her face reflected in their direction and the phenomenon is defined as the Venus effect. It could be any woman, but the directness of her gaze is unmistakable. In fact, the inner meaning of Rokeby Venus is shrouded in absolute mystery.
The folds and creases of the satin bed sheets imitate Venus's reclining form, emphasizing the contours of her alluring body, especially her buttocks. In sharp contrast to the dark grey and black of the sheets, shades of pink, white and grey are used for her skin, highlighting its smooth softness However, the significance of the intertwining pink silk ribbons, draped over the mirror and curl over its frame is also not very clear. They may imply the bindings used by Cupid to restrict the movements of the passionate lovers or it was used to blindfold Venus moments before.
It is believed that, in all probability, Rokeby Venus was painted in Rome, which was a more liberal city than Madrid and the artists had the liberty to use a live nude female model. So it is believed to have been painted from life. However, the identity of the model remains unclear and is subject to speculation. Some scholars claim that she was Velazquez' mistress, who is supposed to have borne his child, while others believe she is the same person that appeared in the other works of Velazquez like, Coronation of the Virgin and others.
Rokeby Venus was displayed in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and it was purchased by the National Art Collection Fund in 1906, for the National Gallery, London. After that, it acquired an international reputation within a short time. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged in 1914, when a feminist suffragette Mary Richardson slashed it at random with a meat chopper. Later, she confessed that she was disgusted by the way the male visitors gaped at nude Venus all day long. However, the damage was successfully restored with a short time and put on to display.