Assignment study – Diego Velazquez – The Rokeby Venus


Image courtesy of:

Amendments suggested by tutor after feedback highlighted in italics.



Velazquez was born in Seville in 1599 which at the time was a thriving artistic community but Spain had been rocked by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  The following century was a time of great political and economic upheaval – Spain took part 30 Year’s War and this was followed by victories in wars against the French and the Dutch. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 effectively meant the decline of Spanish authority and the growth of French power. Portugal seceded from Spain in 1640 and there was the Catalan revolt of 1640-52 which meant increasing economic crisis for the ruling monarch Phillip IV. Despite the limited funds displays of royal wealth were encouraged as the government wanted to reassert Spain as a leading world power and so these displays were propaganda in effect. There was also much world exploration continuing and so these displays were used as diplomatic tools.  During this period though there was also an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1649 which quite literally halved the population of Spain which would have had further bearing on the economic crisis and combination effected lives of ordinary people. Spain was a strictly Catholic country and this had a bearing on the social factors with the Spanish Inquisition being under the authority of the King and moralities of the day. The Catholic Church and monarchies of Spain, France, Austria and Britain wanted the status quo to stay the same and yet there were opposing views by those who wanted reform including what was then the new Protestant movement amongst others.

The Rokeby Venus was painted it is believed for the Marques des Carpio who was the son of the First Minister of Spain and it is supposed that it was only displayed privately – it is the only surviving nude painting of Velazquez and his patronage by the King enabled his works to escape the Inquisitions censorship of such works.

Tutor notes:  Commissionner of the painting was on Gaspar Mendez de Haro – marquis of Carpio and listed in his collection in 1651 … painting listed hanging on the ceiling above his bed so meant as a private erotic image – this piece was a companion piece to another of Venus which was seen from the front which subsequently suggested that this nude was not the painter’s own or original idea.


The status of artists was raised considerably during the 17th Century in Spain as the King patronized many of the great masters of the time including Velasquez and amassed a huge collection of works including many of the Italian masters of the 16th Century.  Velasquez himself had trained under Francisco Pacheo – his studio effectively was an art academy and Francisco de Zurbaran and Alonso Caro learnt their trade there.  The style Pacheo taught was very much an idealised style and fitted in with the strictly Catholic country. Velasquez quickly abandoned Pacheo’s style as he preferred the naturalism of Caravaggio and to paint from life. The Golden Age or Siglo de Oro is the term applied to 17th Century art in Spain due to the exaltation of artists by the Royal court and also the Baroque period. The Church and monarchies then shaped the art by wanting their artists to grandeur and richness in a sensual manner to evoke an emotional response – they wanted to show what they considered the truth to their congregations and also as stated to display to the world they were still a world power so the artists that were patronized by the church and King were highly exalted and often had influence at court.

Tutor notes:  to look beyond Velazquez’s apprenticeship to Francisco Pacheco and think about how due to the low professional status of painters in Spain the artists worked under financial and social pressures and consequentially some struggled to bring about change – this is something that now as I type this I understand much more about.  The pressures caused by financial or social aspects meant the painters may be potentially restricted in their style and so changes in style could be slow – I question whether the patrons wanted a particular style that was fashionable rather than for the artist to bring in new developments?    My tutor also asks me to consider the special relationship between the artist and Philip IV – Velazquez held various court positions and my understanding now he is was at times a diplomat as was common with other court artists.  My tutor further points out that Velazquez was able to reside in an apartment in the Treasury House which connected via a passageway to the Royal Palace – later reading of Chapter 13 WHA suggests Philip IV monopolised the artist for the rest of his life.  


During the Baroque period there were new techniques in painting and sculpture that were developing including “tenebrism” (taken from the Italian word “tenebroso” meaning dark).  This technique is often confused with the other technique of “chiaroscuro”.  The former was characterised by the background often being totally black and then the figure or object being lit from a single light source and thus deep shadows were created with highly contrasting light and dark areas.  The chiaroscuro technique is harder to define and the two styles are often confused – it is to do with the contrast between light and shade and again the object or figure is usually lit from a single source and by doing so the object becomes three dimensional as opposed to when there is no light source and the object looks solid. Painting during this period was often very creamy and the thick impasto effects produced showed the broad brushstrokes.

When you print or look at the Rokeby Venus in black and white as opposed to colour you can see that Velazquez had painted in the chiaroscuro style due to the strong shadows and both Venus and the cherub are clearly lit from a light source at the front. The painting is also very much of the Baroque style with the richness of the drapes and fabrics on which Venus lies – they appear to be silks.

Sculptures during this period were concerned with absolute realism and worked with wood adding glass eyes, ivory teeth, real hair and even tears to their work. n additional a specialist painting technique known as “polychroming” added to the realism with remarkably lifelike flesh tones.  The same style of painting could also be done on canvas – I question whether this one of the techniques Velasquez used in his Rokeby Venus on the skin tones of Venus and the cherub although I have not come across a reference to such a specialised technique in relation to the work.

Architects of the period also used the skills of the muralists in their buildings to produce some of the great trompe l’oeil frescoes and ceilings of buildings and churches which further enhanced the grandeur of their designs – the architects of the Baroque period built the St Peter’s Square in the Vatican with great columns and ornate details.

The Rokeby Venus is so realistic in its techniques that it evoked strong emotions even 3 centuries later and so much so that in 1914 a suffragette Mary Richardson famously slashed the nude figure several times as a protest against the arrest of a suffragette leader – she later admitted that she had objected to the painting because it attracted the attention of male viewers because Venus’s back and bottom almost come out of the painting.

Tutor notes:  “key things to observe include the modelling of Venus’s body with infintely scrupulous and tender gradations of  cool and warm colour (white, pink, grey and muted black and red)  with minute reflections of light and shade, and the single brushstroke, laden with black painty, tracing the line that runs beneath Venus’s body from the middle of the back to below her calf.” Looking afresh at the painting I can understand exactly what my tutor is referring to as the delicacy of touch of the artist and the attention to detail is exquisite and the effects mean that Venus is portrayed in a realistic but to me almost idealistic sensuality.


Baroque art was developed essentially by the Church and monarch and brought with it a sense of grandeur and realism.  The style was one that was very much concentrated on line and colour as well as very graphic and thereby it was a considered one of the most truthful styles of art.  The style and movement were essentially Catholic Counter-reformation art i.e. developed to opposed those who wanted reformation by a show of grandeur and wealth and by that means power and in doing so again this style was effectively used as a show to the world that the Spanish were still a leading power despite the economic crisis and the defeats in battle over territories. Essentially the style was developed as a direct reflection to the political and cultural changes in Spain and across Europe. The style was characterised by other factors as well as those already mentioned:  1. Realism or naturalism in the work, 2. Grandeur or sensuality, 3. Classicism or what is classed as the ideal and 4. Emotional content – the intent was to provoke or evoke an emotional reaction.  The classic works of the great artists including Francisco de Zurbaran and Alonso Cano (also an architect) all demonstrate these factors – I was drawn to the Rokeby Venus because of the emotional reaction it evokes even now.


Velazquez was taught in the classical tradition by Pacheco but his style was also influenced by the Catholic propriety.  Velazquez was the son of a lawyer of Portuguese origin which may have been an early influence but he also travelled to Italy twice – there he was influenced both by the classicism of the Italian artists as well as the antiquities and also by the contemporary artists of the time – the latter is apparent in painting which show his skill with perspective.  The influence of the classics influenced the paintings he produced at the time and the classical figure of Venus and the way she lies demonstrates this but with the sensuality and emotion that is so much a part of Baroque painting – her face is not looking at you but seen in the mirror and by having her positioned the way she is incredibly sensual and almost the perfection of female beauty.

Clearly the influence of the Italian artists and culture were apparent in Spain and on the Baroque period despite the restrictions and moralities of the Inquisition.

Velazquez was known for his lifelike images and influenced others – on his second trip to Rome it was he who was chosen to paint the Pope and that painting was then copied by many other artists of the time.

Due to the exploration of the New World and the Crusades that were on going the scholars and artists of the day would have been influenced by the tales of the explorers and crusaders and the artefacts that they brought back with them – the patronage on the artists by the Church and the Court meant the concentration was on the aforesaid grandeur and emotions but for those artists whose income relied on the domestic market this proved a valuable new source of income if they exported their canvases. However fleet seizures meant some payments for commissions were not forthcoming which had a direct impact on the income of the artists in an already difficult climate (that is if you were not a court painter!)

Tutor note:  to look at Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino in addition to my own notes above which my tutor summarises as referring to a “conflation of the Venetian Renaissance investions of ‘Venus at her mirror with Cupid’ and the ‘Reclining Venus'”.


The period of the Golden Age or Baroque movement in Spain was a period of upheaval and of competition between the Catholic Church and the State and those who wanted reform.  Many of the scholars of the time rejected traditional university teaching and went so far as mocking the doctrines – Galileo was amongst those who adopted earlier teachings and made many scientific studies which went against the teachings of the Church and thereby many Christians realised their real place in the Universe was not at the centre (Copernicus’s theory that Galileo adopted and further worked on was that the Sun was the centre).

The discoveries of the New World and exploration had further added to the problems encountered by the Church as they too went against their traditional teachings – these discoveries and the reforming scholars and thinkers of the time were why the Catholic Church and King Phillip were so determined through the use of the artists and development of the Baroque movement to further their own teachings and what they considered the truth.

Tutor notes:  “It is worthwhile reviewing the painting in relation to notions of power, the female as object and the concept of the male gaze.  (For a feminist reading of the image see Nead’s book The Female Nude:  Art, Obscenity and Sexuality)”.  This is something that as my knowledge has increased since I originally wrote this blog and worked on this exercise I have come to understand more fully – women were often seen as objects for a man’s gaze or to do his bidding and there is the potential to see this painting as a woman knowing her power over men due to her sensuality.  

FOOTNOTE: The painting is called the Rokeby Venus because it was in the collection at Rokeby Park in County Durham before acquisition but the real name is the Toilet of Venus.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: (2002-2016).  Velazquez The Complete Works [online].  [Date Accessed:  January – February 2015].  Available from: – Diego Velazquez biography

Encyclopedia of Art History. (date unknown).  Baroque painting 1600-1700 [online].  [Date Accessed:  January – February 2016].  Available from:

Metropolitan Museum of New York. 2000-2016.   Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Velazquez (1599-1660) [online].  [Date Accessed:  January-February 2015].  Available from:

National Gallery. 2016.   Diego Velazquez. The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’) [online].  [Date Accessed:  January-February 2015].    Available from:

National Gallery. 2016. The Sacred Made Real exhibition 2009-2010 [online].  [Date Accessed:  January – February 2016]. Available from:

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