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D(XIlJMENTS Why Did Suffragettes Attack Works of Art? Rowena Fowler Mary Richardson's attack on the "Rokeby" Venus on 10 March 1914 was the first and most famous in a campaign of deliberate damage to works of art during the last months of suffragette militancy before the outbreak of war. Fourteen pictures were slashed and nine women arrested between March and July. The statements made by the women in self-justification and the reactions of public and government demonstrate the poUtical and sodal importance of works of art and their powerful symboUc status. The attacks received widespread pubUdty at first and were almost universally condemned. For nonmUitant suffragists, and even for some more radical sympathizers, the destruction of art was the crudal test of the validity and expediency of the campaign of violence. Even though the discussion of the rights and wrongs of the attacks often took place at a rudimentary level reminiscent of the ethical old chestnut about babies and paintings in burning buildings, the feelings of outrage and puzzlement cannot just be reduced, as the suffragettes argued, to hypocrisy. It was not necessary to be an art lover or connoisseur to be disturbed by the threat to a valuable but vulnerable national possession; it was genuinely upsetting to see beautiful things spoüed and to find "great" and "timeless" works of art forced into proximity with the messiness of contemporary poUtical conftid. It also contributed to the impad of the attacks that they were not carried out surreptitiously or anonymously but took place in pubtic during the open hours of museums and gaUeries. All the women involved were immediately apprehended and charged; only one gave a false name. I shaU discuss the reverberations of these seemingly irrational acts of violence, deliberately and conspicuously perpetrated by respectable and sometimes timid women against something they professed to care for and appreciate. Of particular interest is the surrogate nature of the pictures which were attacked; the way in which a painting of a woman or a portrait of a man was perceived as standing for female exploitation or male authority. For this reason I have concentrated on two female nudes and four portraits of important men. A list of the attacks can be found in the Appendix. Mary Richardson claimed that her slashing of the Velasquez Venus was a reprisal for the Glasgow arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. In a statement sent to the office of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), she wrote: "I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in © 1991 Journal of Women-s History, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Winter) 110 Journal of Women's History Winter THE GASHES MADE IN VELASQUEZ'S "VENUS WITH THE MIRROR," IN THE NATIONAL A dastardly outrage took place in the National GaUery, in Trafalgar Square, on Tuesday, March 10, when a militant Suffragette attacked the world-famous Rokeby "Venus," of Velasquez, mutilating it with a smaU chopper. The actual damage done is shown in this illustration. The marks made by the woman on the canvas are exactly as is here shown; and they are here reproduced by authority of and courtesy of the "Times." That paper describes the damage as follows: 'To judge from the damaged frame, the first blow was struck at the point marked by the star in the reproduction of the picture-----What is described by one who afterwards saw the damaged masterpiece as probably the most serious blow has caused a cruel wound in the neck. For three or four inches, he says, it runs almost 1991 DOCUMENTS: ROWENA FOWLER 111 GALLERY: THE HARM WROUGHT BY THE MILITANT TO THE £45,000 MASTERPIECE verticaUy, and spreads out an inch wide. Another severe cut has been aggravated apparently by the chopper's having been twisted a Uttle as it was withdrawn for the next blow. Further, there is a broad laceration starting near the left shoulder and roughly forming, with two other cuts, a letter 7N/ Two of the limbs of that letter are six or dght inches long, and the third is a gash extending right beyond the body and some inches through the drapery bdow it. The other cuts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 109-125
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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