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Norms do… the Rokeby Venus

You’d excuse the Duchess of Cambridge, aka our adored Kate Middleton, for being a little miffed at the reception to her sister Pippa’s now famous backside when it meandered up the aisle of Westminster Abbey behind the blushing bride in the decade’s most watched wedding last year. Her bottom was a largely unanticipated feature of the wedding, but one which captured almost as much attention as Kate’s dress, particularly amongst the males watching the wedding (causing unanimous consternation amongst their female partners – one, it was reported, even slashed her boyfriend’s car). But should Duchess Kate wish to console herself of this great usurpation of her wedding day, she need only wander next door from the National Portrait Gallery to which she has recently become patron. There, in London’s National Gallery, she will find a backside which easily eclipses Pippa’s behind in terms of notoriety (and, frankly, beauty), a bottom which has been both ogled at and admired in equal measure for centuries, and one which has stirred such strong reactions in its audience that a King of England helped to purchase it for the nation, and prompted one crazed suffragette to slash the painting repeatedly in pursuit of her campaign for women’s rights (in prompting such violent actions then, perhaps the two bottoms are on par). It is, of course, the beautiful bottom of the Venus, painted by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, which has become known as The Rokeby Venus. 

The original Rokeby Venus by Velazquez (courtesy of The National Gallery, London)

The painting, which became known as Rokeby when it was moved to Rokeby Park in Yorkshire in the 19th century, is easily one of the prizes of The National Gallery’s collection. It not only shows a lovely naked body for audiences to admire and, possibly, to become aroused by, as well as an intimate, uninterrupted moment of self-absorbed beauty, it also offers us an innovative way of representing the archetypal duo of classical figures, Cupid and Venus, with Venus’ back to the viewer, and Cupid, without his usual bow and arrows, engaging, assisting Venus in her act of self-appreciation. Painting Venus’ back to the audience was an unusual choice, but it not only adds to the intimacy of the scene, it also allows the nude to be admired from a hitherto unseen perspective. And in order to involve the audience with his portrayal of Venus further, Velázquez uses the mirror as a device to introduce Venus’ face in the scene as well. In this way the composition is not only innovative but highly effective as a tool to seduce and captivate the viewer. As Velázquez goes, this is quite a departure from Las Meninas and his other court portraiture, and would, in fact, have been painted with a degree of secrecy in a society which was prowled by the stricture of the Spanish Inquisition. Its beauty is however equal to, if not greater than these more “official” works, and provides an intimacy and emotional intensity which would never be captured in the stiff pose of a courtier, or even the traditional classical manifestation of Venus.

Damaged sustained by the Rokeby Venus when slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914

Now the Norms, being as ever, fans of high culture, particularly of a Spanish kind, have adopted the pose of the Rokeby Venus for your pleasure. In this watercolour reimagining of Velázquez’s masterpiece, the composition is pretty faithful to the original, albeit the medium of watercolour provides something of a coarser, more vivid finish than the hazy blended effect which Velázquez has achieved with oils. I also made the face of the Norm in the mirror more prominent that Velázquez’s Venus whose face is inexplicably blurred. Recent National Gallery x-rays have shown that this blurring remains unchanged from the painting’s original finish and was, therefore, always intended by Velázquez. Why he blurred the face no one can be sure, but I like to think that it conformed to the softness of the whole scene, including the gentle finish given to Cupid. In giving Venus a generalised, undefined face, Velázquez emphasises the beauty of her body and the drapery which mirrors its curves so effectively.

The Normby Venus (after Velazquez) (watercolour on paper, 2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Let’s hope that my Norm reimagining remains in one piece and is not slashed to pieces by a protester…

So before leaving you to (hopefully) enjoy my Norm pastiche, just a note on who else has been inspired by the Rokeby Venus. Well the list is fairly long, including Goya, Ingres, and Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry with his The Wave and the Pearl. But it is also possible, I think, to attribute Manet’s infamous Olympia to the dare and innovation of Velázquez’s portrayal of the nude. As Velázquez reinvents the female nude with this glance at her behind, so too did Manet reimagine the nude, painting a similarly unembellished nude who stares directly at the viewer, captivating the audience in the same way that the Rokeby Venus pulls the viewer into the intimate scene by way of her reflected stare in the mirror. Notable too is Manet’s drapery, mirroring and enhancing the curvature of his creamy-smooth nude.

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863) courtesy of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Also of note is the 1970s photographic reinaction of the Rokeby Venus by Bergström as well as by contemporary photographer Sam Taylor-Wood. In the latter photograph, Soliloquy III, Taylor-Wood pushes the erotic nature of Velázquez’s work to a new level, capturing what looks like a self-portrait in the Rokeby pose above a freeze which appears to show a group of people indulging in a mass orgy in an office space.

Bergström over Paris (1976)

Soliloquy III (1998) Sam Taylor-Wood

Suddenly Pippa’s small, well-covered bottom loses much of its lustre… Until next time.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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