My Favourite Painting: Wendy Philips

Wendy Philips, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s, chooses a classic Velázquez.

Wendy Philips on The Toilet of Venus, aka the Rokeby Venus, by Diego Velázquez

‘The “Rokeby Venus” is, to me, a particularly inspirational painting, not only because of the sheer beauty of the work itself, its perfection in composition and its teasing and enigmatic messages, but also because its acquisition by the National Gallery marked the first successful public campaign, in 1906, to save a masterpiece for the nation, spearheaded by the newly formed National Art Collections Fund.

‘At the time, the purchase price of £46,000 might have seemed unattainable; now, it seems money well spent.’

Wendy Philips is deputy chairman of Sotheby’s UK and head of Tax, Heritage and UK Museums.

John McEwen on The Toilet of Venus

The ‘Rokeby Venus’ (previously housed at Rokeby Hall, Co Durham) was thought to be a late masterpiece until an entry for it was found in a 1651 inventory: ‘A painting of a nude woman… leaning on her right arm and looking at herself in a mirror held by a child.’ The ‘child’ is winged, hence Cupid and the mythological title The Toilet of Venus.

There were plenty of nude goddesses from Renaissance Italy and Flanders in the Spanish royal collection, but it seems this picture may have been a result of Velázquez’s second trip to Italy, from 1648. His mission was to collect artworks on behalf of the king; he also had bronze casts made of famous antique marbles — most relevantly to this painting, the Villa Borghese’s nude Hermaphroditus sleeping on her front, now in the Louvre.

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The 1651 inventory listed the collection of a young Spanish nobleman. The picture, undoubtedly painted from life, was probably commissioned by him, affording Velázquez a licence denied when painting for the king.

It is the only known Spanish nude before Goya’s 1800 Naked Maja. In counter-Reformation Spain, such an obviously erotic subject was not tolerated. Naked mythological figures had to be shielded from the queen’s gaze and Velázquez’s master and father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, as inspector of art for the Inquisition, advised that even female hands and faces should be modelled only by chaste women.

Something of this fierce puritanism drove a suffragette to slash this painting in 1914. The diagonal rips across the body are still discernible when viewed from the side.

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