Skip to main content

The Vandalism of Art in the Name of Justice

Velazquez' painting "Rokeby Venus" was vandalized in 1914 by suffragette Mary Richardson.

Velazquez' painting "Rokeby Venus" was vandalized in 1914 by suffragette Mary Richardson.

Art is truly powerful, in that it can express ideas that cannot be formed accurately through the use of words, and it can elicit a broad range of emotions based on an individual's lived experiences, current circumstances, mode of understanding and beliefs.

Often, expressing something visually has a greater impact, and resonates deeper than a collection of words. (That is not to undermine those who can masterfully weave words in such a way that move us immensely.) Perhaps, the power of the visual impact is what brings some to go as far as to vandalize a work of art, in order to make a moral statement.

Below, I've compiled a few examples of art vandalism in the name of justice.

Diego Velazquez, "Rokeby Venus," 1647-1651 (48 x 69.7 inches)

Diego Velazquez, "Rokeby Venus," 1647-1651 (48 x 69.7 inches)

The Slashing of the "Rokeby Venus"

The Rokeby Venus, painted by Diego Velazquez in 1647-1651, depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility, laying nude across a bed or chaise lounge. Her son, Cupid, the god of erotic love, desire, attraction and affection, holds a mirror upright in which the viewer sees the reflection of Venus' face.

In 1813, the Rokeby Venus was brought to England to hang in Rokeby Park, Yorkshire, where it aquired its name. The painting, however, has also been referred to as The Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, or Venus and Cupid. In 1906, it was purchased by the National Gallery in London.

It was while hanging at the National Gallery, that the Rokeby Venus was attacked and marred.

Suffragette Mary Richardson

Suffragette Mary Richardson

The slashes cut by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914 on Velazquez' "Rokeby Venus," while hanging at the National Gallery, London.

The slashes cut by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914 on Velazquez' "Rokeby Venus," while hanging at the National Gallery, London.

On March 10, 1914, suffragette Mary Raleigh Richardson walked into the National Gallery, smuggling in a meat cleaver. Upon reaching the Rokeby Venus, she slashed the painting seven times before being apprehended. The slashes are primarily on Venus' backside.

Her attack on the painting was motivated by the imprisonment of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, known for organizing hunger strikes every time she was jailed. Pankhurst and other suffragettes in jail, would suffer being force-fed and would frequently fall ill to the point of being released because officials didn't want to deal with the consequences. After slashing the Rokeby Venus, Mary Richardson wrote in a brief statement:

"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. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a Government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy."

As a result of the attack on the Rokeby Venus, Mary Richardson was sentenced to imprisonment for the maximum time allowed for the destruction of artwork - six months.

Interestingly, the Rokeby Venus is the only surviving female nude painted by Diego Velazquez. Luckily, the National Gallery's chief restorer, Helmut Ruhemann, was able to successfully repair the painting, allowing it to remain on display to this day.

The Whitewash of "The Holy Virgin Mary"

The mixed-media painting, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, depicts a Black Madonna cloaked in a blue robe, a traditional feature of the Virgin Mary. On the golden yellow background, surrounding the figure, are what look like flying insects - butterflies perhaps. The canvas, rather than hanging on the wall, rests on two dark, round lumps - if facing the painting, the left lump has colorful pins sticking in it that spell out the word "Virgin," and the right lump spells out "Mary."

Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary," 1996 (8 x 6 feet)

Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary," 1996 (8 x 6 feet)

Upon closer examination, the viewer realizes that those flying "things" are magazine cutouts of female genitalia and buttocks. And after reading the list of mediums used in the accompanying tag, the viewer also discovers that those two round balls the canvas is leaning on are made of elephant dung. That's right. Elephant poop. The Virgin Mary's right breast is also a lump of elephant dung. Ofili spent a period of time in Zimbabwe, which influenced his use of dung, especially as supports for the canvas, in many of his pieces.

In 1999, The Holy Virgin Mary was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York as part of the Saatchi exhibition titled Sensation (fittingly so). The city of New York's mayor Rudolph Guiliani brought his wrath on the show by withholding the museum's monthly funding and by (unsuccessfully) bringing a court case against them, stating that the exhibition of Ofili's work was "sick" and "disgusting."

Scroll to Continue

Before the show even opened, self-described artist Scott LoBaido began hurling horse manure at the facade of the Brooklyn Museum. When apprehended by the police, he claimed he was expressing himself artistically, mocking the work of Ofili and claiming that the upcoming show was Catholic-bashing. This act prompted the museum to hang a sheet of plexiglass in front of Ofili's controversial piece.

After Sensation opened its doors to the public, Dennis Heiner, a 72-year old devout Roman Catholic approached The Holy Virgin Mary, and then feigned illness, leaning against the wall supporting Ofili's painting, avoiding the attention of the guards. Heiner then quickly pulled out a bottle of white paint, slipped his arm behind the plexi and squirted the paint over the canvas, further smearing it with his hand. Heiner successfully obliterated the Virgin.

Making no attempt to flee, Heiner calmly explained to security that the work is blasphemous. He was later charged with criminal mischief, but received a conditional discharge and a minimal fee of $250.

Fortunately, The Holy Virgin Mary was since restored and is now owned by David Walsh - a Roman Catholic himself.

The Inking and Egging of "Myra"

Also part of the Sensation exhibition, was a large painting titled Myra, created by Marcus Harvey in 1995. The painting, at first glance, depicts a black and white pixelated portrait of a blond-haired woman. After moving in closer, one can tell that the "pixels" are actually the hand prints of a young child. So what's so bad about a portrait of a woman made with a child's hand prints?

Marcus Harvey, "Myra," 1995 (9 x 11 feet)

Marcus Harvey, "Myra," 1995 (9 x 11 feet)

First of all, "Myra" isn't just a portrait - its image is a mugshot of Myra Hindley, one of Britain's most notorious serial killers. Arrested in 1965, Hindley, age 23, and her boyfriend Ian Brady, had tortured, sexually abused and murdered five children in Manchester, England, infamously referred to as the Moors murders. While initially Hindley claimed to have been drugged by Brady, being unaware of the murders happening, she later admitted to playing a much larger role. She was reported saying, "I ought to have been hanged. I deserved it. My crime was worse than Brady's because I enticed the children and they would never have entered the car without my role...I have always regarded myself as worse than Brady."

While exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in London, Myra drew the most attention and outrage of all the pieces in the Sensation show. On September 18, 1997, the opening day of the exhibition, artist Peter Fisher smuggled in blue and and red India ink, concealed in two camera film cases. Once he reached Harvey's painting, he tossed the ink directly at it and smeared it in. Witnessing this attack, Jaques Role, also and artist, quickly left to purchase a half dozen eggs and managed to throw 3-4 of them at the painting before being halted by an off duty police officer. Role explained, "There are moments when you must do something about it. Otherwise, next time we will have even worse; we will have a picture of the actual torture."

The painting was removed and also restored, returning to the gallery just two weeks later, this time behind a protective screen and flanked by guards. Learning of the painting and its effects on viewers, Myra Hindley played the remorse card, writing from prison and asking that the painting be taken down and removed from the exhibition. Hindley reasoned that the work was "a sole disregard not only for the emotional pain and trauma that would inevitably be experienced by the families of the Moors victims but also the families of any child victim."

When the painting traveled to the United States, Myra elicited no reactions from viewers, as Myra Hindley's mugshot was primarily notorious in Britain.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on February 13, 2016:

Interesting. We have had a similar vandalism problem in Detroit--several arsons of the Heidelberg Project.

Corinna Nicole (author) from Huntsville, AL on April 19, 2013:


Thank you for reading and your comment!

While I don't condone vandalism of art, I agree that the context (the situation and the chosen work of art) of the vandalism is important in making a valid statement.

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on April 19, 2013:

Very interesting perspecive on art and vandalism with nice case studies that enrich your argument. It is the symbolic power of the works of art under question that provide the context within with such actions of vandalism would have any meaning.

Related Articles