"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."
N o other artist in British history has dedicated themselves to the depiction of the human form as assiduously as William Etty, and in particular the female nude. Whether small single figure compositions, academic studies or the grand mythological and historical works that he sent to the Royal Academy and the Society of Arts, his paintings are festooned with voluptuous naked flesh. For this reason, Etty has always held an ambiguous position in British art history, and his work has been praised and criticised in equal measure.
To contemporary artists, who marvelled at the depth and corporeality of his figures, he was renowned and highly praised for his ability to render flesh tints and his skill in capturing the human form. A prominent figure at both the St. Martin’s Lane and Royal Academy drawing schools, Etty remained devoted to the life class throughout his career, attending sessions long after his official artistic training had finished and even when his deteriorating health made it inadvisable. Contrary to the hieratic structure of most late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century artistic training, the life class, as well as giving students the ability to study directly from the human form, encouraged an egalitarian sense of camaraderie, offering the opportunity for ‘contact and collision’ between artists, which Etty claimed resulted in ‘electric sparks and fire’. In the cramped space of the Royal Academy schools senior academicians and students alike were able to look about them and see on one side ‘an Academician making a drawing in black-lead pencil or red chalk, with all the minuteness of finish’ and on the other ‘a member of the same body dabbing in with a palette, knife, and a pencil’ to create the ‘most gorgeous effects’.
Despite contemporaries’ admiration for his technical skill, like his friend John Constable, Etty struggled to gain public recognition in his early career, and it was not until 1821 (by which time Etty was in his mid-thirties), with the exhibition of The Arrival of Cleopatra in Cilicia (National Museums Liverpool) at the Royal Academy, that he finally received the acclaim he craved. Critics marvelled at the ‘languid and luxuriant beauty of Cleopatra’ and described the painting as belonging to the ‘highest class’ of art.
Etty followed up this success by exhibiting a succession of major mythological works over the following years, which were greeted with significant praise and established Etty as one of the foremost historical painters in Britain in the early nineteenth century. He was also repeatedly singled out for his rich and luxuriant use of colour, and critics described Etty as the natural heir to the great ‘exemplars of splendid colour – the chiefs of the Venetian and Flemish Schools, Titian and Rubens’.
In 1849, reviewing a solo exhibition of his work held at the Society of Arts, the correspondent for the Literary Gazette described Etty as the ‘greatest artist that ever adorned the English school’ and Alfred Elmore, a fellow painter, writing to the collector Thomas Miller, described Etty as ‘on a par with the best painters that ever lived’.
Despite contemporary admiration for his technical abilities and his spirited contribution to the Academy’s life classes, perhaps no other British artist in the first half of the nineteenth century other than Turner has divided both public and critical opinion more vehemently than William Etty. Even today, he remains a controversial figure. Whilst his male nudes tended to escape criticism, being celebrated as ‘vigorous performances’, ‘grand’ specimens of heroism and ‘energetic’ displays of an ‘athletic nature’, his female nudes often came under sharp attack by contemporary critics for their perceived lasciviousness and immorality, and many openly denounced him as a sensualist for his ‘seductive females’. Whilst his important position in British art was marred by such controversies during his lifetime, his posthumous fame suffered a worse fate. In the late nineteenth century, his whole œuvre was eclipsed by the genuinely raffish work and life of the pre-Raphaelites, and later the truly lascivious output of artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and the decadence of the generation of Oscar Wilde, whilst in the wider art historical world, aesthetic sensibility was forever changed by the masterpieces of J.M.W. Turner and the French Impressionists. By the advent of the twentieth century Etty’s significant contribution to British art had been almost entirely forgotten, and an Arts Council exhibition in 1954 led to only a short-lived revival of interest.
Today, however, unencumbered by the dictates of nineteenth-century artistic discourse and morality, we can appreciate the beauty of Etty’s art for what it is. As was explored in the recent exhibition William Etty: Art & Controversy at York Art Gallery, controversial as it was, and to some extent still remains, Etty’s art was not the outpourings of a prurient mind but the result of a lifetime of serious engagement with the traditions of European painting, a dedication to the study of the life model and a commitment to an independent artistic spirit.