Thirty-eight

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The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’)

1647-51 by Diego Velázquez
The National Gallery, London

Postcard Seven was Velázquez’s Mars which, painted in 1638, precedes his more famous Venus. Despite the near 10 year gap between them, the paintings remember one another; in both Velázquez uses the sumptuous colours of deep pink and dusky blue, each played out in the decadent texture of deep silk. For Mars this was a little effeminate, for Venus the colours elaborate her nude sexuality; it these colours that significantly tie the two paintings together, join them, as the two were lovers in myth. Like Mars, Velázquez gives the figure of Venus a realism that she is often denied. She is not typically Grecian or Roman; we are not confronted with a muscular concentration of voluptuous flesh. Velázquez’s Venus is pale and slender, her hair simply tied in a bun; we may imagine that it is a real woman inside this painting – albeit a very beautiful one – rather than an idolised god, Velázquez’s Venus also turns away from us, though we are given the much-debated reflection of her face – is that where the mirror points? – which appears rosily human in a plain wooden frame. This is not to say that Velázquez’s Venus is not seductive – her nudity is perhaps more risque for its toying with reality; her skin has a milky glow subtly warmed by a delicate blush that deepens with each curve – drawing our eyes in and along her body. Whether Velázquez’s Venus objectifies or frees the figure of Venus, there is no denying the power of this painting; controversial both then and now.

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