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Uncovering the naked genius of William Etty

How important are the paintings of William Etty?

Now, for most people the answer will be “Who?” In a way, that’s surprising, given the potent mixture of controversy, praise, delight and horror his works have attracted over the last couple of hundred years. His depictions often got him into hot water and unsought controversy shifted attention away from his genius. Some of his later works failed to approach the magnificence of his earlier achievements and his star was in decline for many years after his death. It’s only recently, in the last thirty years or so, that it’s begun to regain its original brilliance.

Self portrait, 1825

Etty was prolific, his 2,000-odd1 paintings encompassing a range of subjects, most often portraying a famous historical scene or an interesting character, as well as occasional commissioned portraits. His comparative obscurity – and to a degree his notoriety – is explained, first, by the fact that his overwhelming focus was on the female nude; and secondly (in my view) by the fact that he was just too good at painting the nude. And that puts him in a quite unique position …

He was dedicated. He found his metier early in life and pursued his chosen career path doggedly. Whilst it’s clear that he possessed innate talent, he also had the good fortune to be supported by relatives and to be tutored by established, accomplished artists. He learned and continued to develop his craft through lifelong study and hard work. At the age of sixty-one, when a student asked for guidance, his simple advice was “practice as much as you can!”; but he was often much more forthcoming.2 His greatest technical strengths were his ability to paint realistic flesh tones, to produce figures which were both lifelike and eye-catching in form and proportion and his prowess in appropriate composition and illustration. Nonetheless, he didn’t achieve his goal of being elected a full member of the Royal Academy until the age of forty-one (coming ahead of one John Constable in the poll).

An early great success was The Coral Finder (1820).

The Coral Finder: Venus and her Youthful Satellites, 1820, William Etty

It was this painting and the magnificent Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia (also known as The Triumph of Cleopatra) the next year, that finally established Etty in the top rank of English painters of the time.

Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia, 1821, William Etty

In his historical works, Etty used his talents to bring to life important mythical and literary events from the past. In so doing, he discovered that there was an unsatisfied market for large (sometimes gigantic!), illustrative, well-painted works of classical scenes: in other words, he had what marketing people would call a Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

More than this, whether knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or as a by-product, he frequently brought out new significances in his subject matter. And his all-too-realistic depictions had numerous other dimensions, an aspect explored in a recent stimulating discussion of one of his more famous works, The Sirens & Ulysses, in an edition of the British Art Talks3 series of podcasts.

The Sirens & Ulysses, 1837, William Etty

These eminent contributors highlight some really interesting points, including the effect of the “scientifically precise” rendition of the rotting corpses in the foreground of the painting; the way classical mythology as subject matter offers an “alibi” for the inclusion of nude figures; and how Etty “amplifies” the sensuality of the female figures. In my opinion it’s this amplification which is the root cause of much of the controversy surrounding his work: whilst there is rarely unnatural exaggeration of the proportions of limbs, bottoms and breasts, the angle selected or centre of interest can on occasion maximise the erotic component of the overall aesthetic, uncomfortably for some viewers.

But why the focus on the nude? It may well have been in part to do with Etty’s need to earn a living. He was playing to his strengths. His endless evening attendances at the Life School – throughout his life, “a perpetual student”4 – must have instilled in him a forensic familiarity with the unclothed human form, both female and male. In his autobiography, quoted in Gaunt, he describes in intricate detail stages in the development of his techniques for reproducing the human figure and authentic skin tones; for instance: “First night, correctly draw and outline the figure only; Second night, carefully paint in the figure (with black and white and Indian red, for instance): the next, having secured it with copal, glaze then scumble on the bloom; glaze in the shadows and touch on the light carefully”.5

Although Mary Beard‘s “alibi” point in the podcast is well made, nudity could be an off-putter to potential clients, as explained by Gaunt: “Sir Francis Feeling was concerned about the draperies in the Cleopatra and induced the painter to make some additions. Other [sic] who had bought a picture out of genuine artistic appreciation were disturbed to find that it was wrongly interpreted by relatives and friends; and the request for more drapery was frequent. The father of a family, desirous of purchasing a picture, could not think of letting his wife and grown-up daughters see such a work as Nymph and Faun Dancing and suggested a delicate compromise – ‘an elegant female figure with bare shoulders … perhaps one side of her bosom bare'”.6

Such personal concerns were as nothing in comparison to the adverse insinuations and criticism often visited on him by the press and indeed some of his peers. The painter C.R. Leslie took Etty to task for his “rejection of draperies” and his “peculiar treatment and choice of subject”. Many whispered in gallery corridors that his nude paintings and his constant attendance at Life School – where he paid such close attention to the naked models – were evidence of a lascivious nature. Etty firmly rejected this: “People may think me lascivious, but I have never painted with a lascivious motive”, he protested in his autobiography. “If I had, I might have made great wealth … if in any of my pictures an immoral sentiment has been aimed at, I consent it should be burnt”.

It needs to be remembered that in his enormous output there are many fine paintings which don’t include female nudes. There are numerous male nudes as well as conventional, commissioned family portraits and character studies. (Some critics have remarked that drapery and clothing was not his strongest suite).

Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball, portraits of Charlotte and Mary Williams-Wynn, 1833,
William Etty

Etty had quite a strong, if somewhat confused, moral conscience, leaning towards Catholicism, but quoted as saying that “I shall live and die a Protestant”. He preferred to look back in time. His religious cast of mind was coupled with a deep fondness for the Middle Ages and a distaste of progress. Gaunt and Roe7 quote him in 1835 foreseeing no future in inventions such as the steam engine. “So, we, grovelling, despise and forget the genius of the olden time and boast of achievements far surpassing them which will, in my opinion, be forgotten long ere the Dark Ages shall pass away”. (His body of work and such comments place Etty firmly in the Romantic movement, with its glorification of Nature).

And when he surveyed the vast canvas of art history, Etty saw that he was simply one of many great artists inspired by the naked female form. “Finding God’s most glorious work to be WOMAN, that all human beauty had been concentrated in her, I resolved to dedicate myself to painting – not the Draper’s or Milliner’s work,- but God’s most glorious work, more finely than ever had been done”. And to my mind his work should certainly be considered alongside other painters in the genre. Over the centuries, many of the supreme artists (one thinks of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Durer, Ingres and indeed Degas, who post-dated him) have painted nudes. Plenty of the world’s favourite paintings feature unclothed females …

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Édouard Manet, 1862/1863
La Venus del espejo (‘The Rokeby Venus’), Diego Velázquez, 1647-1651
La maja desnuda, Francisco de Goya, c. 1797–1800
Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510

And yet, inexplicably, few British artists have been attracted to, or comfortable with, painting the nude, especially in its classical style. “Before Etty’s arrival, England had nothing to offset in nude-painting the tremendous performance of Titian or Paul Veronese”, wrote Gaunt and Roe. Does this say something about the British psyche? If fame is the sole measure of importance, Etty may be regarded as only a minor figure in the history of British art. As Sarah Burnage, then curator of a 2011/12 exhibition of Etty’s work at the York Art Gallery, in introducing the exhibition, admitted: “Today he’s largely forgotten”.

Whilst undoubtedly true, to me this seems ludicrous. It’s undeniable that his powers faded slightly towards the end of his life, but there are so many stunning works in his whole canon that we really should rank him alongside the Old Masters that he himself so much admired.

Musidora: The Bather
‘At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed’, exhibited 1846, William Etty
Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm, 1832, William Etty
Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed, exhibited 1830, William Etty


1 Gaunt, William and Roe, F. Gordon: Etty and the Nude (Leigh-On-Sea, Essex: F. Lewis, 1943 – temporary war address)

2 Example: “A few colours; Naples yellow, light red, Indian red, a little vermilion, lake, Terre verte, – or blue, – raw umber, burnt ditto, and black; are about enough. The application, practice must give you. As to the vehicle to paint with: a little sugar of lead, finely ground, about the size of a bean, rubbed up with your palette knife; in a teaspoonful of mastic varnish. Add to this two spoonfuls of cold drawn linseed oil. Mix them well up together. If you like, add a little spirits of turpentine, as much or as little as you please. And with a large brush rub over the canvas or picture you have to paint on … this is a vehicle that will keep the flesh tints pure”.

3 British Art Talks podcast, Paul Mellon Centre For Studies In British Art; discussion between Anna Reid Research Fellow at the PMC, Professor Mary Beard, Classicist, Newnham College, University of Cambridge and Cora Gilroy-Ware, art historian, author of The Classical Body in Romantic Britain.

4 Gilchrist, Alexander: Life of William Etty, R.A (np)

5 More: “A few colours; Naples yellow, light red, Indian red, a little vermilion, lake, Terre verte, – or blue, – raw umber, burnt ditto, and black; are about enough. The application, practice must give you. As to the vehicle to paint with: a little sugar of lead, finely ground, about the size of a bean, rubbed up with your palette knife; in a teaspoonful of mastic varnish. Add to this two spoonfuls of cold drawn linseed oil. Mix them well up together. If you like, add a little spirits of turpentine, as much or as little as you please. And with a large brush rub over the canvas or picture you have to paint on … this is a vehicle that will keep the flesh tints pure”.

6 Gaunt, ibid.

7 Gaunt, ibid.


Self portrait, 1825, (c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Sirens & Ulysses, 1837, 442.5 cm (14 ft 6.2 in) by 297 cm (9 ft 9 in), (c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation; source – Wikipedia

Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia or The Triumph of Cleopatra, 106.5 cm (41.9 in) by 132.5 cm (52.1 in), Lady Lever Art Gallery – Wikipedia

The Coral Finder: Venus and her Youthful Satellites, 74.4 × 98.58 cm, source unknown – Wikipedia

Others – all public domain – Wikipedia

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Where the arts meet psychology – making sense of synaesthesia

I first became aware of synaesthesia when studying some of the nineteenth century French poets at school. Symbolist poets such as Charles Baudelaire (pictured), Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud mixed sense impressions together and made unexpected adjectival associations to augment the power of their poetic metaphors. It was intriguing: this way of writing suggested that our individual senses could experience much more about the outside world than what their single functions were meant to experience. In combining the senses in their texts, these writers hinted at new dimensions in consciousness: they seemed able to create a sixth sense, or maybe even a seventh and an eighth.

Now synaesthesia would be pretty interesting even if that was all there was to it. But, as I found out later, such imaginative creative devices often spring from psychological phenomena which are all too real. Synaesthesia (or “synesthesia”) is indeed a real psychological condition which produces unusual sensory impressions. It’s become the subject of immense, detailed study by scientists around the world.

In the 2021 New Year’s Honours, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre and a Fellow of Trinity College, was knighted for services to autism research and autistic people. This news caught my eye when I read that he has also done a huge amount of research into links between autism and synaesthesia.

The condition is sub-divided into various sectors, including sequence-space synaesthesia (where sequences such as numbers and time periods are visualised as spatial landscapes) and grapheme-colour synaesthesia (where letters and numbers (graphemes) may conjur up colours in the mind of the “synaesthete”). It turns out that synaesthesia has been a contributory factor in a wide range of outstanding artistic abilities and achievements amongst some very famous people. And whilst some synaesthetes utilise, knowingly or unknowingly, their condition in creative activities, some other writers, composers and artists, whilst not synaesthetes themselves, use synaesthetic inputs to enhance their creative outputs.

So it’s perhaps reasonable to suppose that some of the most accomplished talents in various fields were synaesthetes and/or autistic. The overlap between the two was brought to light in an article in the journal Nature on 7th March, 2017:

… synaesthesia and Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) co-occur together more than would be expected by chance. Nefeld et al. and Baron-Cohen et al. screened samples of patients diagnosed with autism for grapheme-colour synaesthsia (primarily) and reported prevalence rates of 17.2% and 18.9% respectively. The current prevalence estimate for grapheme-colour synaesthesia is 1-2%. Hence these studies suggest a link between synaesthesia and autism.

A list of some of the famous people who claimed or claim to have synaesthesia would include composer Richard Wagner, rap singer Kanye West, artist David Hockney, bandleader Duke Ellington, composer/violinist Jean Sibelius and singer/songwriters Billie Eilish and Billy Joel, amongst many more.

Last month (February 2021), Google offered its visitors the opportunity to experience synaesthesia for themselves by “playing” a painting by Kandinsky. Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky has a reputation as being one of the founders of abstract art. (For anyone interested in the early development of modern art, the Wikipedia page on Kandinsky is a mine of useful information). Kandinsky developed his own quite complex theories of colour and artistic form over many years, based on his own sensory and internal experiences; for example, he listed the correspondances he himself perceived between colours, eigenschaften (characteristics) and klangfarbe (tone colours). He published his theory in 1911. Here’s Red Oval, an example of Kandinsky’s work that I particularly like.

The Google Arts & Culture experiment, Play a Kandinsky, harnesses the full power of digital technology to put Kandinsky’s theory to the test. It can be accessed here and is well worth a visit!

In his (I suggest) most famous poem, Correspondances, written some time between 1846 and 1857, Baudelaire pictured Man traversing a unified natural environment in which forests of symbols watch him …

Comme de longs echos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une tenebreuse et profonde unite,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarte,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se repondent.


Like prolonged echoes which merge far away
In an opaque, deep oneness,
As vast as darkness, as vast as light,
Perfumes, colours and sounds answer each to each.

Overlapping senses perceive a natural world which is itself in harmony, says Baudelaire – in other words, we live in a totally synthesised world.

Not everyone was convinced that Baudelaire did really experience synaesthesia. Writing in 1912, June E. Downey, in a paper entitled Literary Synaesthesia, poured cold water on the idea that French symbolist poets were genuinely – and, at the same time, fortunately – “afflicted” by synaesthesia.

French literature … raises many questions as to the possibility of poets’ experiencing synesthesia to an undue degree. Everyone will recall Rimbaud’s “Sonnet of the Vowels,” which, it must be confessed, sounds somewhat sophisticated. Baudelaire’s insistence upon sense-correspondences and Maupassant’s confessions are scarcely more convincing.

In a wide-ranging short article, having been dismissive of the French writers, she makes some interesting observations about the works of Poe, Swinburne, Shelley, Keats and Blake, basing her conclusions on the results of “a test on the imaginal, affective, and esthetic reaction to [… fragments of their …] poetry” amongst a panel of twelve readers. This market research-type approach to synaesthetic style, whilst somewhat eccentric and simplistic, does perhaps pre-date the close reading techniques employed later in the century by the New Criticism school and maybe even linguistics philosophers.

What is of value is that she picks apart the sense imagery employed by some leading poets; and she also poses the question as to whether Baudelaire and the others were true synaesthetes, or whether their “special effects” were created by drugs (a question which would find innumerable echoes in every artistic field in subsequent decades).

While synesthetic experiences are not pathological, yet it is known
that they may result from stimulation by drugs or accompany the
excitement of fever. It would not then be impossible for the poet in
the fever of inspiration to experience a subtle confusion of the senses that would lead to spontaneous synesthetic phrasing, incomprehensible to the average reader.

“Confusion” is a very relevant term. I think one of the more fascinating aspects of synaesthesia is the confusion over whether it is good or bad: is it a psychological condition to be studied and, perhaps in the future, corrected?; or is it a gift, to be valued and nurtured? There’s no simple answer, of course, as all cases are different. But the more we learn about autism and synaesthesia, the more we become aware of the possibility that the conditions can sometimes be instrumental in producing unique or unusual creativity in the arts and other spheres of human activity.

(A brief summary of the nature of synaesthesia can be found in the Introduction section of this abstract from a study, to which Professor Baron-Cohen contributed, published on the Scientific Reports website).

By the way, I was genuinely gripped by the idea of synaesthesia when I first heard about it, back in my school days – so much so that I was inspired to write a song which centres around the phenomenon. Although I wrote it while still at school, I thought recently that it might be good to update it and produce a version of it which used modern recording techniques. You can listen to Knowing The Truth on my music website on this page.

The press release issued by Cambridge University lists Professor Baron-Cohen’s many other achievements. He is one of the top autism researchers in the world, and is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the British Psychological Society. He served as Chair of the NICE Guidelines for autism and is Director of the charity the Autism Centre of Excellence and Vice President of the National Autistic Society. He was President of the International Society for Autism Research. He created the first clinic worldwide to diagnose autism in adults and championed the human rights of autistic people at the UN. He is author of The Essential Difference, Zero Degrees of Empathy, and The Pattern Seekers, which have captured the public imagination.

Picture credits: Charles Baudelaire – Etienne Carjat (1828-1906), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Red Oval – public domain; source via Wikimedia Commons

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