Monday, April 4, 2011

Venus by a Yorkshireman: more nudes by William Etty

Musidora (1846)

We looked at some of the work of York's most successful artist, William Etty, and his statuesque nudes here.  Today we will examine some more from his prolific output.

Etty first studied in Paris in 1816, working at the studio of Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829) who specialised in large historical paintings.  His influence can be seen on Etty's Candaules King of Lydia Shews his Wife to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed. 

This picture illustrates a passage from Herodotus where King Candaules, in order to prove that he has the most beautiful wife in the world lets his minister Gyges spy on her undressing for bed. The painting attracted enormous criticism and was deemed obscene, although that did not stop it finding a buyer!

Birth of Venus

Etty had first exhibited in 1811 with two pantings one entitled Sappho and a classically themed painting Telemachus rescues Princess Antiope from the fury of the wild boar.  He coninued to paint historical or mythological subjects and did a number of portraits but increasingly produced simple nudes for collectors.

These often had no historical or mythological justification and for many he couldn't even use that other great excuse for a female nude painting; the bather, although he produced a fair few of those.

In 1822 he travelled to France Italy and stayed some time in Venice studying the work of the likes of Titian and Rubens.  it was after this period that he started to specialise in nudes.


In 1824 on his return to London he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy, defeating Constable by 18 votes to five.

Although he was atracted to several ladies during his life he never married and was considered very shy and retiring.  He certainly treated his models with the utmost propriety.

Statue of William Etty in York

In 1848 he retired and moved back to York where he died the following year.

Nymphs with a sea monster

Etty's work is somewhat variable in standard but then there was a difference between his large historical paintings and those nudes produced for collectors, some of which were not really appropriate for exhibiting in mixed company.

In particular some of his paintings show the model's pubic hair which would certainly have not been acceptable for in a painting on public view.

Female nude in a Landscape

His Female nude in a Landscape not only clearly depicts the model's pubic but also her underarm hair.  It is a rare and honest representation of an early Victorain woman in her naked reality.

Etty admitted that his drawing was not of the highest standard always struggled with it and he was happier as soon as he had reached the point in his studies at the Royal Academy where he was permtted to paint.

In particular, he often had difficulty in portraying arms which often look awkward compared with the torsos he was much happier illustrating.

At his best, however, his nudes, and particulartly some of his reclining ones, possess a rare and un-British sensuality.

One thing he was good at, though, was his handling of colour and he often laid down great swathes of paint to contrast with his pale figures.  In fact, much of his work looked forward to the work of the French impressionists and was quite avant garde for its time.

A major exhibition of Etty's work will be held later this year in the York Art Gallery where they have 78 of his paintings and over 1,000 sketches in their collection.  They will be bringing in paintings from other galleries in Britain too.  Entitled William Etty: Art and Controversy the exhibition will run from 24th June, 2011 until 22nd January, 2012. 

Agent Triple P intends to visit the exhibition later in the year which will, hopefully, provide enough information to identify and date the pictures in this post, information about which is rather scarce.

Triple P, who knows something about Victorian art (although, perhaps, not as much as Agent DVD who has studied it formally) had not even heard of Etty until he came across one of his nudes tucked away high on a wall in a remote corner of the Victoria and Albert museum some years ago.  Hopefully, the York exhibition will help rehabilitate Etty and get this influential artist's name better known in Britain. 

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