william etty Nymph Angling
13 min

The Allegoric Nudes of William Etty, The Devil

13 min

He was disappointed in teachers and travels; swore himself never to marry and lived with his niece, whom he forced to devote herself to taking care of him; attended student classes in his forties. People gathered to watch him painting and called the artist Il Diavolo for his speed and accuracy; the English press condemned him for pictures considered immoral and pornographic; He produced one of the most accurate copies of the famous Titian painting regarded by his contemporaries as impossible to copy. This all is about the British artist William Etty (1787-1849), who worked in the genre of history painting, which dominated at that time.

William Etty, self-portrait,

Fig. 1. William Etty, self-portrait, 1823 (Wikipedia.org)

william etty A Young Woman Reclining on a Fur Rug Fig. 2. A Young Woman Reclining on a Fur Rug (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Academic study of a male nude

Fig. 3. Academic study of a male nude (fineartamerica.com)

william etty The Deluge

Fig. 4. The Deluge (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Hero and Leander

Fig. 5. Hero and Leander, 1829 (Wikipedia.org)

william etty The Three Graces

Fig. 6. The Three Graces (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Male nude with arms stretched

Fig. 7. Male nude with arms stretched (Wikipedia.org)

william etty AriadneFig. 8. Ariadne (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Ariadne 2

Fig. 9. Ariadne 2 (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Nymph Angling

Fig. 10. Nymph Angling (fineartamerica.com)

Early Years

Witty was born in York, the place he would love the most, in a family of a successful baker. From an early age, he manifested his talents by drawing in chalk on the floor of his father's shop. Eleven years old, Witty became an apprentice printer to the publisher Robert Peck of Hull, and he loathed this work from the very start. When the seven years contract expired, Witty was filled with happiness, which he reminded in his autobiography more than forty years later. Two months after receiving freedom, he arrived in London to enroll in the Royal Academy Schools and began preparing for the entrance exams. Students were obliged to copy classical sculptures. Interestingly, the drawing that he showed to the painter John Opie was a copy of the Roman Cupid and Psyche. Impressed, Opie sent Etty to Henry Fuseli, who accepted the young artist to RAS. The cornerstone of Etty's artistic view became Opie's statement that the artist shouldn't idealize the figures but depict them in the flesh of ordinary humans, so the painting will be more engaging. Opie pointed at Titian as the example of this belief and a master of color, and Etty followed this principle throughout his career.

william etty Nude bather by a stream

Fig. 11. Nude bather by a stream (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Reclining female nude by a waterfall

Fig. 12. Reclining female nude by a waterfall (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Reclining nude Fig. 13. Reclining nude (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty william etty Reclining nude

Fig. 14. Male nude (ebay.com)

william etty Reclining female nude Fig. 15. Reclining female nude (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Half-figure of a female nude

Fig. 16. Half-figure of a female nude (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Study of a draped nude Fig. 17. Study of a draped nude (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Academic study of a reclining male nude

Fig. 18. Academic study of a reclining male nude (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Male nude seated

Fig. 19. Male nude seated (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Reclining female nude Fig. 20. Reclining female nude (fineartamerica.com)

Idols and Disappointments

Considering Thomas Lawrence was one of the greatest portraitists of that time, Etty wanted to become his pupil, and his uncle paid Lawrence 100 guineas for the artist to hold Etty as a private student for a year. When, instead of exciting insights about fine arts, Etty was ordered to copy some old paintings of the master with an opportunity to have a brief consultation when he needed it, the pupil felt deeply disappointed. Yet, money was paid, and Etty patiently did his work.

william etty The Golden Age

Fig. 21. The Golden Age (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Bacchante with tambourine

Fig. 22. Bacchante with tambourine (fineartamerica.com)

william etty A Bacchanalian Revel Fig. 23. A Bacchanalian Revel (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Cupid and Psyche, study Fig. 24. Cupid and Psyche, study (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Cupid and Psyche

Fig. 25. Cupid and Psyche (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Allegory Fig. 26. Allegory (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Two female bathers

Fig. 27. Two female bathers (fineartamerica.com)

william etty A family of the forest Fig. 28. A family of the forest (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Bathing nude

Fig. 29. Bathing nude (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Nude lying on a sofa Fig. 30. Nude lying on a sofa (fineartamerica.com)

Broken Heart and The Vermin In The Bed

In the 1810s, being unsuccessful in his artistic pursuits, Etty decided to travel to Italy and spend there a year copying the artworks from the local collections. By that time, Etty fell in love and worried about whether it would be right to take his new wife abroad. Eventually, his concerns turned out to be pointless as the woman rejected him. Let's mention that Etty was considered extremely unattractive, though his self-portraits of that time don't give such a miserable impression. In early September 1816, he arrived in France and felt only homesick instead of being entertained. When he relocated to Switzerland, there was another sad incident: although the Englishman Etty brought with him tea-making equipment, he couldn't find any milk in remote mountain villages. In October, the artist arrived in Florence and complained to his older brother about "the vermin in the bed, the dirt, and the filth," concluding that "it is impossible for me to be happy." Already in November, he returned to London with a brief stay in Paris in the atelier of Jean-Baptiste Regnault, the mentor of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, but found the studio "too full of Frenchmen" and left soon.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Aeneas tells Dido about the fall of Troy Fig. 31. Left: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Aeneas tells Dido about the fall of Troy, 1815 (Wikipedia.org); right: William Etty, The Coral Finder, 1820 (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Phaedria and Cymochles Fig. 32. Phaedria and Cymochles (fineartamerica.com)

The Formula of Success

The beginning of Etty's career was unsuccessful. All his paintings submitted to the Summer Exhibition were rejected, and competitions failed. Although, after his unlucky travel, he developed skills, and The Coral Finder (1820) was his first big success. The depiction of Venus holding a boy with a paddle resembles the pose of Dido in the painting of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin Aeneas tells Dido about the fall of Troy produced five years earlier. The piano manufacturer Thomas Tomkinson obtained a picture at a good price, and Etty was commissioned to paint a similar painting on a larger canvas. "I've found a secret of success!", said Etty to himself, and since that time, all works he exhibited contained at least one nude figure. This approach made him a target for the accusations of the British press.

The unfinished version of Four Seasons Crowning Pandora with Venus and Vulcan, Fig. 33. Left: The unfinished version of Four Seasons Crowning Pandora with Venus and Vulcan, 1820 (Wikipedia.org); right: Four Seasons Crowning Pandora, 1824 (wikipedia.org). Compare the extent of nudity.

Cleopatra’s Arrival

Fig. 34. Cleopatra’s Arrival, 1821 (Wikipedia.org)

Cleopatra's Arrival

The following year, Etty took up the commission and produced an "extended" version of the Coral Finder depicting Cleopatra, who comes to Mark Antony. A larger ship and more naked bodies on a canvas make a positive reception guaranteed. Though, Etty tried too hard when in early 1822, he exhibited another boat with nudes, A Sketch from One of Gray's Odes (Youth on the Prow). Critics ridiculed the artist for being repetitive and accused him of vulgarity. The Times wrote, "nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and on Mr. Etty's canvass is mere dirty flesh." This way, Etty's realism, praised by his teacher Opie, became a disadvantage, and the alarmed commissioner even asked Etty to paint clothes on some of the figures.

william etty Study for Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm

Fig. 35. Study for Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Satyr Spying on a Reclining Nymph

Fig. 36. Satyr Spying on a Reclining Nymph (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Nude

Fig. 37. Nude (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Seated male nude

Fig. 38. Seated male nude (fineartamerica.com)

william etty Male study

Fig. 39. Male study (gallerix.ru)

william etty The Wrestlers

Fig. 40. The Wrestlers (Wikipedia.org)

william etty Two males fighting

Fig. 41. Two males fighting (gallerix.ru)

william etty st kneeling nude

Fig. 42. Standing nude (fineartamerica.com)

 william etty Standing nude

Fig. 43. Kneeling nude (fineartamerica.com)

Il Diavolo

Despite the success of Cleopatra, Etty remained a student in his mid-thirties, as he assumed himself not competent enough. Pursuing perfection, he attempted to travel to Italy again. The summer of 1822 was extremely hot in Rome, and Etty was frustrated again until he came to Venice. The painter Eastlake provided Etty with a letter to the British Vice consul in Venice Harry D'Orville, who was so impressed with Etty that he invited the artist to stay in his own house. Remembering Etty's complaints about the vermin, it's easy to understand why he eventually stayed in Venice for seven months instead of ten days as he planned. He copied paintings from Venetian collections by day and attended the life class of the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts by night. The local instructors were impressed by Etty's distinctive feature - his flesh tones. It was at the Academy where he acquired the Il Diavolo nickname because of his speed. Gioachino Rossini, Ladislaus Pyrker (then Patriarch of Venice), and others came to the life class to watch him painting.

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Sources: Wikipedia.org; fineartamerica.com