Sylvia Sleigh and the Rokesby Venus: Challenging the notion of the ‘Idealised Female’

On Tuesday 10th March 1914, the suffragette Mary Richardson attacked Velasquez’s The Rokeby Venus, slashing at the canvas seven times.



When asked about her motives she argued that this idealised female insulted her, being admired by men who were blissfully indifferent to women’s suffering in the patriarchal 20th century. Richardson clearly saw art as mirroring a society’s desires, and this idealisation in particular moved her enough to pursue her own form of iconoclasm. Is Sylvia Sleigh’s Philip Golub Reclining taking Richardson’s argument and using it to attack Verlasquez and the male perception of femininity?


The central figure appears to directly parody Velasquez’ original, however there are some notable differences:

Painting style –  Sleigh uses harsher brushstrokes than her predecessor, perhaps to target the ideal female figure. But can this new style, used to portray a male figure rather than a female’s, could also be seen to critique the general perception of men as rough, edgy and hard?

Concept of distance – An interesting concept of distance exists within the painting. The proximity between the central subject and the surveying figure, which here is Sleigh’s self portrait, is more distanced  than The Rokeby Venus and cupid. The mirror, fixed to a wall, provides a more relaxed tone than the cupid who, by holding the mirror to Venus, encourages self indulgence. This is heavily reminiscent of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, by exploring the hypocrisy of a painter who lustfully portrays the female form but conceals it by painting a mirror in the female’s hand to emphasise her vanity. Perhaps Sleigh, by including herself in the painting, is admitting to lust and vanity whilst remaining at a safe distance away from the central subject. The viewer senses this admiration from afar and is compelled to emulate it. Whereas The Rokeby Venus is heavily intimate, Sleigh is able to present a nude in an openly critical way. By presenting herself as clothed in the presence of a nude male, she is able to question social attitudes to dominance.

Gender ambiguity – The male central figure, who without being named in the painting’s title, would remain sexually ambivalent. On the surface, he appears to be an ambiguous personality; his pose is similar to the Venus, but his muscle structure suggests there is more to this ‘female’ than meets the eye. As we are facing the back of the figure, his long hair at first deceives the viewer into assuming a female. Unlike many contemporary artists, who see little importance in a title, Sleigh uses her title to give the male an identity. She calls the audience on many levels, to go deeper than what is on the surface.

Unfortunately for Richardson, her active protest only diminished men’s respect for women, causing a protest for women to respect art in galleries. By presenting the controversy in a new way, through something as familiar to the art world as a nude, Sleigh asks us to question the concept of idealisation. 

For more: