The Suffragette Vandalism of the Rokeby Venus: A Symbolic Attack on Patriarchy
The Suffragettes had become known for their direct action tactics, which often involved vandalism and the destruction of public property. These acts were seen as a form of protest against the patriarchal establishment that denied women their basic rights. While the Suffragette's campaign of vandalism was primarily directed at government and public buildings, they also targeted works of art, which they saw as symbolic of male domination and objectification of women. Perhaps the most famous, or should I say infamous, attack on art was made on the National Gallery's Rokeby Venus.
On March 10th, 1914, Mary Richardson, a militant suffragette, walked into the National Gallery in London and attacked the painting with a small meat cleaver. She slashed the painting seven times before she was stopped by the gallery attendants. The damage to the painting was extensive, and it took months for the painting to be restored fully. The incident shocked the art world, and the public reacted with outrage and disbelief. This is the incident my character, Lisa Brown, refers to when she meets Annie Hutton in the National Gallery in my novella Under Cover of Darkness.
For the Suffragettes, Mary Richardson's attack on the Rokeby Venus was a symbolic act of defiance against the patriarchal establishment that denied women the right to vote. The painting was a representation of the male gaze, a cultural phenomenon that objectified and sexualized women. By attacking the painting, Richardson was challenging the idea that women were objects to be looked at and possessed.
Reactions to her attack were mixed. Some condemned it as senseless vandalism, while others sympathised with the Suffragette's cause. The art establishment was outraged, and the incident sparked a debate about the value of art and its relationship to politics. Some argued that art should be protected from political agendas, while others argued that art had a social and political responsibility.
As well as the Rokeby Venus, several other works of art were attacked by Suffragettes around the same time. John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James was targeted by a Suffragette named Mary Wood on 10 June 1914. Wood entered the Royal Academy of Arts in London and attacked the painting with a meat cleaver, causing significant damage to the painting, which had to be restored.
John William Waterhouse's The Soul of the Rose was also slashed by a meat cleaver by Olive Wharry.
The Suffragettes also targeted public monuments and statues that they saw as representative of male power and privilege. In 1913, a group of Suffragettes attacked the statue of Oliver Cromwell in the House of Commons, which they saw as a symbol of authoritarian rule while another group targeted the statue of the Duke of Wellington in London, which they saw as a symbol of military power.
The Suffragettes defended their actions as a form of protest against an unjust system that denied women their rights. They argued that their campaign of vandalism was necessary to draw attention to their cause and to force the establishment to listen to their demands.