Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 – 1660) was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV, and one of the most important painters of the Spanish Golden Age and European Baroque. And The Rokeby Venus is his only surviving nude, three others are mentioned in Spanish inventories and are now sadly lost.
In the period of Spanish Inquisition, it was bold to paint nudes and the fact that Velázquez could get away with it certifies to his high position in society as a court painter. Thankfully, we can still enjoy this one so let’s do so (don’t take it for granted, it had a close brush with destruction.
Velázquez most famous painting is without a doubt Las Meninas, on the surface just another group court portrait. But if you just scratch this surface a thousand other meanings come through. To mention just a few, it is also Velázquez self-portrait, we can see the reflection of the royal couple in the mirror (were they standing where we are standing?), who are the people in the background? For that matter who are the people in the foreground, too? What’s with the dog?
Today, though, we are going to look at a lot calmer and less crowded painting, yet no less revolutionary and full of meanings. Again, on the surface, it is yet another depiction of Venus. There is a long tradition of depicting Venus reclining or looking in the mirror. Here Velázquez combines those two motives and to add to that portrays Venus turned away from the viewer. All those things have been done before in art, but Velázquez was the first painter to bring it together.
The folds of the bedsheets accentuate the gentle arch of Venus body. The silkiness of her skin echoed by them and even more pronounced by the color contrast. The use of color is sparing, but masterful. The painting plays out between large areas of nuanced and contrasting colors: dark steel of the bedsheet, red curtain and beige wall provide a perfect background to enhance Venus’ pale almost translucent body. Also, in my personal opinion, it is one of the most beautiful hips in art, if not the best bum.
You can see the Cupid focuses on the angle of the mirror. It is for a reason, do not be fooled that Venus is looking at herself and Cupid looks at her reflection…they are both looking at you! Cupid is making sure the angle is perfect for Venus to see who is watching her. This trick is actually known as the Venus effect. It subverts the traditional nude, in which the model is the object of the viewer’s gaze, often unknowingly. Here we are being secretly watched while watching. So, who is the object now?