Your details


Update your details || || Logout


Around the galleries

There’s Something about Etty: Art and Controversy at York City Art Gallery

— November 2011

Associated media

William Etty: Art & Controversy

Matthew Sillence looks at a Victorian artist’s provocative paintings

William Etty (1787–1849) may not be the most famous painter of the 19th century, but his works are as distinctive and provocative for the modern viewer as they were controversial to the art-going public of his day.  Born in Feasegate, York, and apprenticed to the printer Robert Peck in 1798, Etty relocated to London in the early years of the 19th century.  He was admitted to the Royal Academy from 1807 and was enrolled there as a student for many years.  Over his lifetime, the artist produced many sketches and finished works,  to which the critics responded with delight and disgust in equal measure.

The current exhibition at York Art Gallery showcases over 130 works from Etty’s career and, as the title ‘William Etty: Art & Controversy’ suggests, the main focus is the sensationalism surrounding the artist’s subject matter and painterly techniques.

The works have been displayed in four sections, each addressing an aspect of Etty’s painting.  The largest and most fascinating arrangement throws the visitor into the artist’s most ambitious and widely known genre: history painting.  To be taken seriously, Etty produced canvases with mythological, biblical and historical subject matter conforming to the stringent requirements of the critics.  At first glance around the room, the most striking aspect of his paintings is the quantity of flesh on display.  As curator Sarah Burnage observes, Etty was condemned for painting ‘seductive females’, but not for his use of the male nudes, which were often praised as heroic and athletic.

Even so, the female nude in itself was not the problem for many critics.  The first canvas in the exhibition is  Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed,  exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830.  Set slightly left of centre, the alabaster body of Nyssia is propped against the bed, undressing in front of her husband.  Nyssia’s back is turned to the viewer; her naked front can only be imagined vicariously through Candaules and the lurking Gyges.  Although this painting is an episode from the Histories of Herodotus, it proved too much for the press.  The choice of narrative was difficult to digest, with charges from the paper The Morning Post that it was ‘reprobate’ and The Literary Gazette that the story was ‘disgraceful’.  Even Etty’s biographers could not deny that it was in poor taste.

What this section of the exhibition demonstrates very well is the variety of responses from the critics to different pieces.  A range of positive and negative quotations have been set above the paintings, encouraging the visitor to think about how the changes of subjects and painterly effects over Etty’s long career elicited different responses from the press.  When Etty invoked the divine, in works such as  Destroying Angel and Daemons Inflicting Divine Vengeance on the Wicked and Intemperate,  exhibited just two years after the Candaules, he was relying on a theme that would elicit approval in contrasting the revelry of a group of semi-naked figures with divine wrath.  In this act of self-censorship, however, Etty’s figures and the brutality of the demons towards the revellers did not escape notice, with concerns that there was a ‘harsh and wanton’ manner in their treatment of the sinful females.  In today’s language, Etty now seemed sadistic.

The second section examines Etty’s engagement with the Old Masters.  Part of his training in the Academy had been to copy from sculpture and painting, and he undertook his own Grand Tour from 1822 to 1824, travelling across Europe to seek out and emulate the likes of Titian, Michelangelo, Rubens and Reynolds, to name but a few. 

This aspect of Etty’s work is important for two reasons.  The first is his uncanny ability to capture the style of painters such as Titian.  His  Venus of Urbino, after Titian  is faithful to the original, and there are many copies of the  Venus.  The reproduction in the exhibition catalogue does not accurately reflect the vibrancy of the painting, which is now held in Edinburgh.  The second reason that Etty’s copying and reinterpretation of the Masters is important relates to the artist’s reputation.  Although emulation of the great figures of painting from Italy was praised, there were also concerns that Etty had become a ‘mannerist’, which in this context referred to a painter who had adopted the style of another and lacked invention.

This aspect is developed more fully in the third section of the exhibition: the life class.  Drawing from life was a necessary but heavily regulated part of Academy training.  Male models were common, but access to female models was restricted to members and students of the institution.  It is through Etty’s drawings and paintings in this section that it is possible to appreciate the artist’s fascination with the body and his mastery of it.  For instance, the  Female Nude  of unknown date and  Male Nude, from Behind, Reclining  (c. 1810) demonstrate the artist’s proficiency in foreshortening the human body.  The life class, however, may have been one of the most troubling of Etty’s inclinations.  The artist evidently relished the experience of drawing from life and the atmosphere of the studio, and the image of him as the perpetual student was unsettling to his peers.  When most had moved on from their time at the Academy, Etty stayed on well beyond the average duration of a studentship, continuing to attend the life classes.

The final section in the exhibition is dedicated to portraiture.  Etty undertook and exhibited very few portraits, and this may have been because of the relatively low status of portraiture as an art form in the first half of the 19th century.  Often criticized for the painter’s lack of inventiveness, as a mere copying from life, or even for its association with vanity on the part of the sitter, portraiture was still controversial, even if it meant that Etty was moving away from the nude. 

Like Etty’s treatment of the Old Masters, his portraits are incredibly diverse, and at times it is difficult to accept that they have been executed by the same person.  Many of his sitters were friends or acquaintances, such as the subject of his vibrant  Miss Mary Arabella Jay,  exhibited at the Royal Academy as early as 1819, which shows the daughter of the Reverend William Jay. This work can be contrasted with the earlier rendering of Etty’s brother, John, which was painted between 1811 and 1812.  Here his sitter almost disappears into the dark background, a flash of white marking his collar and two books positioned to the bottom left to balance the composition and an allusion to intellectual pursuits.  John was a baker and miller, but in this portrait there is no trace of his occupation.

The full-colour exhibition catalogue edited by Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallett and Laura Turner is a major achievement.  Although there are several detailed essays and it is aimed at those with prior knowledge of British painting, it is a clear and accessible text with excellent reproductions of Etty’s work organized around the four aspects of his artistic career.

In the first of the essays, Burnage focuses on Etty’s painting of the nude, the public backlash and the artist’s subsequent attempts to defend his reputation through his powerful  Destroying Angel and Daemons Inflicting Divine Vengeance on the Wicked and Intemperate  and his own argument that if there was anything lascivious in his work, it was very much in the eye of the beholder.

Martin Myrone’s piece concentrates on Etty’s prolonged studentship and give a useful context for a number of the criticisms that were directed at the artist’s work and professional status.  Richard Green examines Etty’s treatment of the Old Masters and successfully presents the artist’s travels, interests and influences to allow the reader to appreciate a number of choices in subject matter and composition.

Sarah Victoria Turner’s essay turns the spotlight on Etty’s  The Wrestlers  (c. 1840) by investigating racial tension in 19th-century Britain through  debates surrounding the black body and physicality. She exposes white anxieties about masculinity in the sports of wrestling and boxing.  Jason Edwards concentrates on another of Etty’s male nudes, examining the artist’s autobiography in light of his references to the life class, food and taste, and our present understanding of Victorian attitudes towards homosexuality.

Through this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, York City Art Gallery has achieved a fresh interpretation of the city’s most famous painter by careful engagement with Victorian art criticism and subsequent biographies.  Not only does this show make great use of the gallery’s permanent collection, but the loans also effectively convey the breadth and diversity of the artist’s career.  There is something about Etty, and it may be the controversy, but there is substance beyond the sensation.

William Etty: Art & Controversy, edited by Sarah Burnage, Mark Hallett and Laura Turner is published by Philip Wilson, 2011. 256 pp., 146 col illus. ISBN 978-0-856677014


Matthew Sillence
University of East Anglia, Norwich
Art historian

Other interesting content

Subscribe to Cassone – it's free and it's fabulous