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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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 …
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.
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