The protest was the work of Just Stop Oil, a climate activist group demanding that the British government stop all licensing for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the United Kingdom.
The group has staged a series of similar protests in the past. Last year, for instance, two activists affiliated with the group threw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. (The painting, protected by glass, wasn’t damaged.)
Conservators are now examining the condition of the Rokeby Venus, which is no longer on display. A National Gallery spokesperson reports that “minimal damage has been sustained to the surface of the painting,” per the New York Times’ Alex Marshall.
The Rokeby Venus, also known as The Toilet of Venus, is one of Velázquez’s most renowned pieces. It depicts Venus, painted from behind, as she stares at her reflection in a foggy mirror held by Cupid. The 17th-century work is also the Spanish artist’s only surviving nude.
The painting was the target of a similar demonstration over a century ago. In 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed the Rokeby Venus with a hatchet to protest the imprisonment of women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst. At the time, Richardson said, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” per a statement from Just Stop Oil. Experts later successfully repaired the painting.
Just Stop Oil posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, of this week’s incident. In the video, the two protesters are in sync as they hammer at the glass protecting the Rokeby Venus.
“Women did not get the vote by voting,” says one. “It is time for deeds and not words. It is time to just stop oil.”
“Politics is failing us. Politics failed women in 1914,” adds the other. “Millions will die due to new oil and gas licensing—millions. If we love history, if we love art, if we love our families, we must just stop oil.”
The two then sit down before the painting and hold hands. Later that day, police reported that they had arrested the vandals.
SUFFRAGETTE PAINTING SMASHED— Just Stop Oil (@JustStop_Oil) November 6, 2023
Our government have revealed plans for MORE oil licences, knowing it will kill millions. In response, two supporters of Just Stop Oil smashed the Rokeby Venus — slashed by Mary Richardson in 1914.
Deeds, not words: https://t.co/3tlBID7nKA pic.twitter.com/Hk0el26QIt
As the demonstration played out inside the gallery, a group of Just Stop Oil activists gathered to march at Whitehall, a central London road that runs toward Parliament Square. “Within 15 minutes, we have arrested at least 40 activists who were slow marching,” police wrote on X. “Whitehall is now clear. We will provide updates on arrest figures in due course.”
In recent years, demonstrations that threaten famous artworks have become increasingly common. Climate protesters have thrown mashed potatoes on a Claude Monet painting, attempted to glue their hands to Edvard Munch’s The Scream, smeared paint on the case of a Degas sculpture and covered the glass protecting the Mona Lisa in cake.
Using hammers, however, is a newer tactic. To explain this choice, a Just Stop Oil spokesperson shared a quote by Pankhurst with Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar: “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else.”