The Feminist implications of the gaze in Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus
By Ipek Birgul Kozanoglu
The painting of a so called ‘nude women’ captivated and astonished many at the time it was made between 1647-51, as the identity of the women who was depicted was unknown and female nudes were a rarity in 17th century’s Spain, which was infamous for its piety. This captivating painting was Velazquez’s famous Rokeby Venus.
The painting was intended for a private audience and hung in the private bedroom of first owner Domingo Guerra Coronel. Almost 247 years after it was painted, the Rokeby Venus was attacked by a suffragist named Mary Richardson in the National Gallery in 1914. The explanation given for the attack was a ‘symbolic’ one for Richardson as she stated that her aim was: “to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who was the most beautiful character in modern history”. What does this tell us about the impact of the gaze and the relationship between the viewer and the painting, a relationship that is still valid more than 200 years after the painting had been completed? The importance of the gaze as it is seen through the mirror still has wide implications and ramifications igniting ongoing debates and a variety of interpretation in feminist art history about the role, spaces, identities and the power of the male and the female.
The confrontation of the gaze of the figure in painting and the viewer has wide implications in feminist art history regarding sexual politics of the gaze. It is argued that society conditions woman to constantly ‘watch herself’ and to construct her identity through the eyes of the ‘surveyor’ as she becomes the ‘surveyed’. Berger summarises this as: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” In Tintoretto’s Suzanna and the Elders (1555-56) the viewer becomes as much a spectator as the Elders, by watching Suzanna having a bath and perceiving the Elders watching her. Suzanna herself becomes a spectator as she watches herself in the mirror. Depicting the nude with a mirror was a device to convince women that they are ‘a sight’ to be looked at, ‘an object of vision’. While ‘nakedness’ is private, nudity is ‘a disguise’ that transforms the women from a person to a ‘display’. Griselda Pollock divides ‘the sexual politics’ of the gaze to a category of ‘binaries’ such as: ‘activity/passivity, ‘looking/being seen, voyeur/ exhibitionist’. Using the mirror as means to establish a connection between the viewer and the figure in a painting was first introduced by Rubens and his Venus at her Mirror (1614-15), an element that is also present in the Rokeby Venus. The reflection establishes the dialogue between the viewer and Venus through the mirror; both sides acknowledge the presence of one another.
The ‘othering’ of the nude as a mythological being became a convenient way for artists to overtly sexualise the nude for the male gaze; a painting of nudes were created for the ‘ideal spectator’ who was always regarded as men, the depiction of women was always a device to please him. The bedroom setting, created through the vibrantly rendered contrasting textures of the fabric of the sheets and the half drawn curtain, create an ‘intimate’ yet dramatic atmosphere. The stark contrast of colour between Venus’s body and the luscious fabric underneath her as well as the burgundy drapery, the ‘suggestive’ pose, the voluptuous curves, the languid pose and the mirror all feed in to the element of Venus as an ‘object of desire’, depicted for the pleasure of men.
However, the power of the gaze, assumed to be in male hands, is switched through what seems to be the ‘indifferent’ pose and unclear expression and a definite acknowledgment on the part of Venus; alluding to the fact that the ‘woman is in control of the situation’. The fact that the act of looking takes centre stage with Velazquez’s central placement of the mirror, forces the viewer to become aware of his action and that he in return is also observed. As it could be seen, power relations regarding the gaze in Velazquez’s Venus seems to differ from previous depictions as the figure is neither languid nor ‘surprised’, nor turned to the viewer. The reflection the viewer is allowed to see is a ‘blurred’, unidentifiable visage and a turned away body. The almost ‘knowing’ yet undisturbed look that Venus has, creates an ambiguity in terms of her true relationship with the voyeur. The sense of ‘incompleteness’ the viewer feels could only be changed when the viewer establishes his/her dominance over the ‘other’, in this case, Venus.
Throughout history of art, forms of femininity have been ‘represented’ mostly by male artists to ‘complement’ male desires. The female’s passive yet eroticised ‘exhibitionist’ depiction, is deliberate to allow the male’s urge to indulge in his voyeuristic fantasies and to assert his power through his ‘justified’ gaze. The construction of space in the painting, certain elements seem to confirm this idea to legitimise the male’s gaze from the perspective of the male. Venus is ‘compressed in a box of space’, confined in the space of the bare bedroom, stretched out on the bed to be gazed upon by the male voyeur. The painting is strictly focused on the body of Venus with no elements in the room to distract the viewer. The fact that the space depicted here is the ‘interior’ almost permits the male to gaze at the reclining nude.
Yet, the focal point of the painting becomes the gaze of Venus, ‘framed’ on the ‘surface reflection’ of the mirror forcing the viewer to confront it. Through Velazquez’s clever adjustment with the mirror, Venus locks the viewer’s eyes to her reflection, not allowing him to gaze at her body. Hence Velazquez hinders the male gaze through both an optical and moral truth. Offering an unconventional perspective to the traditional idea of the male gaze, it is suggested that Venus indulging in her own reflection becomes a ‘female narcissistic self-involvement’ that ‘justifies male voyeuristic desire’ which is seen often in Renaissance with images such as Suzanna and the Elders by Tintoretto, who was thought to be the artist Velazquez was most inspired by. Hence Velazquez might be presenting the viewer with another unexpected interpretation of what is thought to be a ‘conventional representation’ of Venus and male gaze.
As can be seen, The Rokeby Venus ignited varied interpretations regarding the male gaze and sexual politics. Even though it is unlikely that Velazquez had created this painting guessing that it would lead to such tumultuous debates regarding the male gaze; it is undeniable that his painting reflects his genius in manipulating the audience and their desires. The painting becomes a classic example of Velazquez’s desire to impress the viewer with his display of painterly talent, his mastery of toying with vision, and his fine brushwork.
John Berger. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972.
Peter Cherry. “Velazquez and the Nude”, in Velazquez’s Fables: Mythology and Sacred History in the Golden Age, edited by Javier Portus, 241-279, Madrid: Museo Nacional de Prado, 2007.
Griselda Pollock. “Modernity and the spaces of femininity”, in Vision and Difference: Femininity, feminism and histories of art, 50-90, London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
Jonathan Brown. Painting in Spain 1500-1700. New Haven and London:Yale University Press,1998.
Edward Snow. "Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems." Representations, no. 25 (1989): 30-41. doi:10.2307/2928465.https://www.jstor.org/stable/2928465?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents accessed 28/11/18.