Term Paper: Art and Society

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Art and Society

An Analysis and Discussion of Gender Construction in the Toilet of Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velasquez

While women in the United States and the United Kingdom have enjoyed the right to vote for several decades now, things were very different at the turn of the 20th century when the suffragettes emerged to challenge the male-dominated status quo of Western society. One of the events that highlighted this period in history was Mary Richardson's attack on Velasquez's "The Rokeby Venus," an event which has since assumed its place in the historical record as one of the most important such events in women's struggle for equal rights. This paper provides an overview, an analysis of Velasquez's "The Rokeby Venus," including a description of the historical era in which it was created, a determination of the transitional social changes that took place within that period and their possible influences on the artist. An analysis of the art work's treatment of gender construction with supporting evidence in the form of a graphic is followed by a discussion and comparative analysis of current artistic or media construction of gender according to the concepts of Functionalism (idealism), conflict theory (Marxism), and hegemony theory (dominant group). A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview.

One authority on the issue of gender construction maintains that anyone who is interested in gender construction today will undoubtedly first encounter the prevailing male-female dichotomy that is inextricably involved. "Masculinity and femininity are traditionally defined as opposed and mutually exclusive categories. This traditional definition is deeply rooted and powerful" (Damon-Moore 5). According to this author, "The union between gender and commerce calls for careful attention to the complexities of both gender construction and popular culture production and consumption. Making sense of these processes presents serious challenges to scholars, and their historical configurations are particularly daunting to fathom" (Damon-Moore 3).

Daunted is not defeated, though, and the gender construction that emerges from a careful analysis of the art work of the 17th century shows that nude women were deemed suitable subjects for popular works of art and this was an acceptable social practice. For example, according to Mallory (1990), the subject of "The Rokeby Venus" is an undraped female figure who is looking at herself in a mirror. The "Toilet of Venus," subtexted subtext, "Venus at the Mirror" (1647-51) by Diego Velazquez is popularly known as "The Rokeby Venus," a name taken from the home of its first English owner, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt of Rokeby Hall (Mansfield 245). The subject and gender themes portrayed in the painting, though, actually go back to the early 16th century, when they were first painted in the early 16th century by Giovanni Bellini in his work, "Nude with a Mirror," painted in 1515 (Mallory 175).

The subject in the case of "The Rokeby Venus," though, was more explicit and suggestive. The presence of a figure of Cupid by the comely female's left side was a theme that was reiterated by both Titian and Rubens. According to Mallory, the conventions of the day provided the framework in which Velazquez's picture was created. For example, in Velasquez's version, Venus is portrayed seated; however, there were also many compositions of Venus reclining on her couch that Velazquez would have known about, and it is possible that he had even seen some examples of the view of a reclining Venus seen from the back. From this author's perspective:

The image is, nonetheless, startlingly novel, and has a more erotic effect than most of its possible prototypes. The formal precedent that comes closest to the sensuality of Velazquez's nude is not a Venus figure, in fact, but the Hellenistic sculpture of a sleeping hermaphrodite. Although the slim, graceful body of Velazquez's Venus appears to be directly observed from nature, both her delicate figure and her pose may have been inspired by the Hellenistic piece, a version of which Velazquez had dispatched to Madrid together with many other acquisitions made in Rome of Classical statuary and casts of famous works. (175-6)

This portrayal of Rubenesque women in 17th century works of art was not considered violative of the social mores of the day, and these works are likewise deemed socially acceptable today. Indeed, it would appear prudish to take offense at such nominal expressions of nudity in artwork today, but the social climate of the early 20th century was vastly different than today. Women today enjoy the benefits of a wide range of legislation and regulations that are designed to help ensure their equitable treatment in most Western societies, but this was not the case when Richardson and her suffragettes formulated their plans.

Historical Setting and Social Transitions.

While "The Rokeby Venus" might be mild by today's standards, the prevailing standards of the late 19th and early 20th centuries precluded even this modest public display of 17th century feminine pulchritude that was regarded as acceptable when it was created (Mallory 175). According to one historian:

Velazquez is universally acknowledged as one of the world's greatest artists....Stimulated by the study of 16th-century Venetian painting, he developed from a master of faithful likeness and characterization into the creator of masterpieces of visual impression unique in his time. With brilliant diversity of brushstrokes and subtle harmonies of colour, he achieved effects of form and texture, space, light, and atmosphere that make him the chief forerunner of 19th-century French Impressionism. (Harris-Frankfort 1-2)

Despite these accolades, though, "The Rokeby Venus" appears to have provoked such outrage among some early 20th century militant female activists who were seeking to challenge the male-dominated status quo that this work of art was specifically targeted for attack. According to Nead (1992), "On 10 March 1914, shortly after 10:00 A.M., a small woman, neatly dressed in a grey suit, made her way through the imposing entrance of the National Gallery, London... The woman in grey was Mary Richardson, a well-known and highly active militant suffragist; the painting that she attacked was Velazquez's 'The Rokeby Venus' (34). The attack on this work of art was prompted by Ms. Richarson's belief that the English government had unfairly treated one Emmeline Pankhurst, a prominent leader of suffragettes: "On 11 March and succeeding days every national daily newspaper carried extensive reports of the incident 1 and many reprinted the statement that Richardson had sent to the headquarters of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU): I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history" (Nead 35).

According to Bartley (2003), the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters and some friends to campaign for votes for women. "Previous groups had been formed to canvass support for women's suffrage," Bartley adds, "but the WSPU initiated a new form of female action: violence" (41). The suffragettes as the WSPU members were called, engaged in a wide range of activities that targeted existing gender disparities, including chaining themselves to railings, writing "Votes for Women" with acid on golf courses that were all-male, disrupted the postal service, verbally and physically attacked members of parliament, put graffiti on government buildings and even church walls and broke windows as well as attacking specific works of art in public galleries and burnt down buildings (Bartley 42).

In fact, breaking windows emerged as a favorite tactic by the WSPU: "Window-breaking attracted widespread publicity and therefore gained the WSPU leader's retrospective endorsement as official policy. Soon the smashing of windows became a well-orchestrated campaign -- and one with a distinct advantage over marches and demonstrations, where women could be physically attacked. As Emmeline remarked: 'A window can be replaced; a woman's body cannot'" (Bartley 43).

Treatment of Gender Construction in Valezquez's "The Rokeby Venus."

Relativism comes into play when considering gender construction from a historical perspective. The female form has long been regarded as a suitable theme for artists, and in reality, though, and as can be seen in Figure 1 below, the female figure portrayed in "The Rokeby Venus" is not as does not reveal anything of Venus's face in a direct way; viewers are only able to discern her features in the mirror; however, the reflection of Venus' face is complete in the mirror, it is nebulous and shadow blur the majority of the image. This titillating aspect of the art work was perhaps what most inspired Richardson hostile reactions to it. As Mallory points out:

The same technique that so convincingly re-creates the sheen of the glass also cheats us of a clear view of what it reflects. The tantalizing vision of the features that seem to gratify the goddess's self-appraisal (Venus' expression suggests a smile of contentment), remains forever beyond our reach. In the context of the picture's subtext, Venus at the Mirror as an allegory of vanity, the elusive appearance of her face may be seen as a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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