In this regard, Nead notes that because she was an art lover, Richardson experienced a moral dilemma in her decision to attack "The Rokeby Venus," but she felt compelled to do so anyway based on her perception that the government was failing to act responsibility towards women in general and the suffragettes in particular. "In her statement during her trial, Richardson appears calm and articulate and nothing is said explicitly about any objections that she might have had to a female nude. Indeed, it was not until an interview given in 1952 that Richardson gave an additional reason for choosing the Velazquez: 'I didn't like the way men visitors to the gallery gaped at it all day'" (emphasis added) (Nead 36).
Figure 1. Velazquez, The Rokeby Venus.
Source: The Social Construction of Gender, 2006.
According to Mann (2002), functionalism could help explain the attack by Richardson on "The Rokeby Venus" based on the stark contrasts between how men and women were treated during the early 20th century. "Functionalism was a static picture of a self-satisfied society run by interlocking power elites," he advises, "suppressing outsiders such as blacks, women, the poor, and the artistic avant-garde. The monuments of structural functionalism now stand abandoned and uncared for. They are best left that way" (Mann 10). In fact, as Bossy, Brothers, Domenico, Goldberg, Manheim, Mcenroe, Pokinski and Watson (2001) point out, the art work that was beginning to emerge during the late 19th century and the early 20th centuries that was influenced by Velasquez and others did in fact become somewhat risque. According to these authors:
In 1863 Manet submitted his painting Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) to the Salon, the annual exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts. The judges rejected it, and Manet decided to exhibit at the Salon des Refuses, a private exhibition organized by the rejected artists. Even there the painting, which shows a nude woman sitting casually outdoors with two fashionably dressed young men while a second woman bathes in a pond, caused a scandal. Although Manet drew part of his inspiration from a Renaissance painting in the Louvre, the Pastoral Concert by Giorgione, viewers were disturbed both by its 'indecent' subject matter and by the apparent carelessness of Manet's style. (Bossy et al. 116)
In 1864, Manet's Olympia created even more social unrest. Using Titian's "Venus of Urbino" as inspiration, Manet made the painting contemporary by replacing the classical nude with the images of a real-life prostitute. "The young woman looks directly at the viewer, while a black servant holds a bouquet of flowers that the Parisian viewer would have recognized as part of the transaction between prostitute and client. Once again, critics were outraged, both by the subject and by Manet's broad, flat painting style: neither belonged in a work of art" (emphasis added) (Bossy et al. 116). In this regard, the attack by Mary Richardson on "The Rokeby Venus" in 1914 has since become one of the most infamous acts of deconstruction of gender identity in recent history. While there were also a significant number of attacks by militant suffragists on other works of arts and public buildings during the period 1912 to 1914, the 'Rokeby Venus' attack appears to have secured its place in the historical record while comparable attacks have been largely forgotten or commemorated only in archives or the minutes of Gallery Board Meetings (Nead 35). Furthermore, this author adds that other such incidents in May 1914 included attacks on five works by Giovanni and Gentile Bellini in the National Gallery by a militant suffragist, following which the Gallery was closed for three months (Nead 113). Despite these other attacks on famous artworks, the attack on "The Rokeby Venus" has "come to symbolize a particular perception of feminist attitudes towards the female nude; in a sense, it has come to represent a specific stereotypical image of feminism more generally" (Nead 35).
From the perspective of conflict theory, the Women's Social and Political Union militant were employing tactics that were clearly intended to highlight the fundamental differences between how men and women were being treated during this period in history. For example, Nead reports that the British authorities began taking steps to protect government buildings and other likely targets as well as these important works of art from such attacks, and had done so for over a year before Richardson's successful attack on "The Rokeby Venus" (Nead 37). According to Nead:
Special precautions were taken to try to prevent such an outrage and in the National Gallery the ordinary staff of attendants had been supplemented by police constables and plain-clothes detectives for at least twelve months before Richardson's attack. But what also begins to emerge from contemporary sources is that especial watch was being kept on 'The Rokeby Venus'" (37). We can only speculate about the reasons why this painting, more than others, was identified by both the authorities and the militants as an 'appropriate' target. But even with our historical distance the choice seems inevitable: 'The Rokeby Venus', hailed as a paragon of female beauty, an exemplar of the female nude, a national treasure and worth a fortune - surely this combination of values and meanings distinguished it from other works in the Gallery, including other female nudes (emphasis added) (Nead 35).
While the fact did not emerge in 1914, it appears reasonable to assert today that the concerns that developed among the male-run National Gallery Board of Trustees and Scotland Yard, were in fact based on this essential conflict between males and female activists during this period in history. "All parties concerned in the incident," Nead advises, "the Gallery, Richardson and the press - were willing to represent it in terms of the conflict of two opposed forms of femininity: the patriarchal ideal (the Venus) and the deviant (the militant suffragist)" (37). By contrast to the interpretation of these events according to the conflict theory, when viewed from the perspective of hegemony theory, the attack on "The Rokeby Venus" can be considered as Richardson's attempt to challenge Karl Marx's assertion that only "men make their own history" (cited in Mcguigan 1992:30). In 1914, Richardson reported that her selection of "The Rokeby Venus" had been based on her anger at the British government's treatment of the WSPU leader, Mrs. Pankhurst (Nead 37). According to this author, "Justice and beauty did not simply apply to the treatment of great works of art but had also to be extended to the treatment of political causes and their leaders. It was a case of 'an eye for an eye': if the Government was going to mistreat and abuse Mrs. Pankhurst, then Richardson felt justified in her violent attack on a 'figure' of femininity which those same authorities held in esteem" (Nead 37).
The research showed that Diego Velazquez's "Toilet of Venus" popularly known as "The Rokeby Venus," was just one of the masterpieces by this influential 17th century artist, but this picture in particular created a great deal of controversy in the early 20th century when military female activists known as suffragettes targeted it for destruction because of its lurid portrayal of the nude female form and its suggestive qualities. The research also showed that while the artist himself was inspired to create this artwork based on socially acceptable views of women at the time, these perceptions tend to change as time goes by. While this picture could likely be featured in any reputable museum today without causing so much as a blink by even the most conservative audience, the fact remains that the gender construction developed by this work of art was deemed sufficiently exploitive that it was specifically targeted for destruction by one suffragette who became sufficiently frustrated with the male-dominated status quo of the day that she felt compelled to take actions - and a hatchet -- in her own hands.
Bartley, Paula. (2003). "Emmeline Pankhurst: Paula Bartley Reappraises the Role of the Leader of the Suffragettes." History Review, 41.
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Harris-Frankfort, Enriqueta. "Velazquez, Diego." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service. 31 May 2006 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-222892.
Mallory, Nina Ayala. El Greco to Murillo: Spanish Painting in the Golden Age, 1556-1700. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Mann, Douglas. Structural Idealism: A Theory of Social and Historical Explanation. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002.…