“The Symbolic Nudes of William Etty: Unveiling the Artistic Exploration of Human Form”

He vowed never to marry, lived with his niece, who he compelled to spend her time to caring for him, and took student classes in his forties. He was dissatisfied with his professors and his trips. The English newspapers denounced the painter for producing images that were deemed to be immoral and sexual, and the crowds who flocked to see him paint dubbed him “Il Diavolo” because to his speed and precision.

; 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.

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

Fig. 3. Academic study of a male nude


Fig. 4. The Deluge (fineartamerica.com)

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

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

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

Fig. 9. Ariadne 2 (fineartamerica.com)

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.

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

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

Fig. 14. Male nude (ebay.com)

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

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

Fig. 19. Male nude seated (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.

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

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

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

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

Fig. 29. Bathing nude (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.

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.

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.

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

Fig. 36. Satyr

 Spying on a Reclining Nymph (fineartamerica.com)

Fig. 37. Nude (fineartamerica.com)

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

Fig. 39. Male study (gallerix.ru)

Fig. 40. The Wrestlers (Wikipedia.org)

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

Fig. 42. Standing nude (fineartamerica.com)

Fig. 43. Kneeling nude (fineartamerica.com)

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