At London's National Gallery, Diego Velázquez's famous nude masterpiece was smashed with hammers this morning by "Just Stop Oil" activists.
One of the National Gallery's most important paintings, as well as the only nude painting in Diego Velázquez's oeuvre, The Rokeby Venus (The Toilet of Venus) was attacked in the morning of November 6, 2023 in the London museum. As the National Galley announced on X (formerly known as Twitter), just before 11am, two visitors entered gallery room 30 and repeatedly splintered the glass protection of the painting with emergency rescue hammers. The two vandals have been arrested, and the painting was removed for inspection.
The two suspects are part of the "Just Stop Oil" campaign, a British climate activism group that opposes new fossil fuel licenses and agreements by the U.K. government. Since their formation in February 2022, the group has targeted famous museum artworks to gain attention, from splashing tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery to glueing themselves to Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis. According to their post on X, they explained they targeted The Rokeby Venus because "our government have revealed plans for MORE oil licences, knowing it will kill millions."
Listen to our podcast episode with a Just Stop Oil spokesperson here: Podcast Ep #25 Climate Activists Make a Splash
The Rokeby Venus has been part of the National Gallery's collection since 1906, when King Edward VIII contributed nearly $1 million worth in today's money for its acquisition. Its moniker comes from British politician John Morritt, who bought the painting in 1814 and hung it at his home, Rokeby Park in Yorkshire.
Painted by Velàzquez at some point between 1647 and 1651, the Baroque masterpiece is especially rare as it's the only surviving nude by the Spanish court painter, as well as the first known nude painted by a Spanish artist. Beginning in the 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition, the holy office established by the Catholic Church, seized and condemned art considered to be immoral, such as nudes. Since Velázquez was the leading court painter to King Philip IV at the time, he was able to escape censorship with his Venus.
While Velázquez was likely inspired by Titian's Venus with a Mirror (1555) and reclining Venus of Urbino (1534), he portrayed Venus in a new way, reclining at her mirror with her back to the viewer and her face, slightly blurred, in reflection. The mysterious and sensual beauty of the painting has endured for centuries and established The Rokeby Venus as one of art history's most important nudes.
However, the November 6th attack is not the first time the painting has inspired a passionate (and violent) reaction at the National Gallery. In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed The Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver in protest of the arrest of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Richardson cut through the protective glass and made seven incisions along the body of Venus, which were later repaired. She specifically attacked the Venus because she wanted to "destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history."
Now, it remains to be seen what damage the Rokeby Venus has now sustained over a century later.