Henry James' Portrait Slashed by Suffragettes

It started in May, 1914. A small woman, dressed in stereotypical grey, entered the National Gallery and slashed Velásquez' 'Rokeby' Venus. She cut the picture in seven places with a meat chopper. Arrested, she explained she had destroyed the most beautiful woman in mythology to protest against the way the world was treating the most morally-beautiful woman in recent history, militant activist Emmeline Pankhurst. Would the art-loving public condemn her gesture while they allowed injustice towards real women to stand? Then they were hypocrites, for "justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas."

There is something very powerful about this image. 'Rokeby' Venus, slashed by Mary Richardson

The art-loving public, including less-radical suffragettes, did protest. Access to art galleries was restricted. The Times described the damage to the painting as if they were conducting the autopsy of a real woman. "The most serious blow has caused a cruel wound in the neck," they wrote, while other sources stressed the financial implications of the cruel wounds. Caricaturists wondered whether it was the suffragettes that had maimed Venus de Milo too. There was almost universal condemnation of the act. Between March and July, thirteen more pictures were slashed.

In May, it was the turn of Henry James' portrait, on display at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. The portrait had been painted the previous year by James' close friend, John Singer Sargent, to mark the writer's seventieth birthday. Given both the painter and the subject, the work was likely to attract a lot of attention, especially on the opening day of the exhibition. It became the target of an elderly, peaceful-looking woman in a purple cloak (how history remembers what these women were wearing), who broke the protecting glass and slashed the picture three times with a meat chopper. Her name was Mary Wood and she was immediately attacked/restrained by the public. The portrait was later repaired by Sargent himself.

The portrait

But why Henry James? There is no indication of whether Mary Wood knew whom the portrait depicted when she chose it. If she didn't, then a possible factor in her choice might have been the Powerful Old White Man aura this particular painting exudes. But the reasoning was most likely different. At this point, the suffragettes were engaging in acts of domestic terrorism to win the vote (see here Sylvia Pankhurst's account of it). They set fire to buildings; they set bombs; they tried to blow up reservoirs. Slashing paintings was not primarily acting out against art. It was destroying possessions that were valuable both materially and symbolically. 'Rokeby' Venus had been bought by public subscription and it had cost the British public £45,000. Sargent's portrait of James was evaluated at £700. Told about this, Mary Wood shrugged and said they wouldn't have evaluated it so highly if it had been the work of a woman. For herself, she was out to show the world that "they had no security for their property nor for their art treasures" until women were given the vote.

But what of Henry James? What did he make of all this? In some letters, he protested the idiocy of the act. In another letter, from shortly after the incident, he claims to have received 390 kind notes of condolence because of it. He says, with gentle humor:
Yes, it was a nasty one, or rather a nasty three--for she got at me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed. I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured, but you will be glad to know that I seem to be pronounced curable--to all probability, that is, when the experts have well looked into me. The damage in other words isn't past praying for, or rather past mending, given the magic of the modern mender's art.
What is interesting, and perhaps bittersweet, about this playful substitution of his person for the painted portrait is that it was exactly what the suffragettes claimed they were doing with their slashing. They said they were using the paintings as surrogates, to draw attention to the victimization of women and children in their society without hurting more people in the process. "Every night pictures by the great artist of all are being defaced in our streets," one of the slashers said. And some days, pictures of less accomplished artists were made to pay for it.

Of course, this story's greatest irony is that Henry James himself had written two pieces in which pictures are stabbed.

We used the following sources, and they are also great material for further reading:
  • Henry James Letters, Vol. 4: 1895-1916, edited by Leon Edel
  • Suffragette Butchery of Art in The Literary Digest, June 13, 1914
  • Sargent Portrait of Henry James Damaged, in The Times, May 5, 1914
  • Thomas J. Otten, Slashing Henry James (On Painting and Political Economy, Circa 1900), The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 293-320
  • Rowena Fowler, Why Did Suffragettes Attack Works of Art?, Journal of Women's History, 2:3 (1991:Winter) p.109
  • Miranda El-Rayess, The Violence of Representation: James, Sargent and the Suffragette, Critical Quarterly, Volume 53, Issue 2, pages 30–45, July 2011


  1. Lovely post :) Have you watched the episode of Parade's End in which this event is dramatised?

    1. I haven't! And now I have a reason to start watching Parade's End! (I couldn't find the motivation for that, though it sounded like something I would enjoy.) Thank you :)