Monday, 7 November 2011

Getting Sweaty with Etty

Oh, for goodness sake.  Recently it's been nothing but decapitation, nudity and self-abuse. I promise I'll be more intellectual this time, I have a masters degree and everything.  I know all about theories and stuff, I promise I'll try harder to be serious.

So, I went to see the marvellous Etty exhibition in York last week, 'Art and Controversy', and I thought you'd like to see the intellectual highlights, while I talk all serious and the suchlike, 'cos that's what I do.

I never really went mad for Etty, not in the same way as I do for Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or anything later in the nineteenth century.  Poised right at the beginning of the Victorian period, William Etty produced a consistently beautiful body of work, which still has the power to impress and astonish.  What I tend to think of when I think of Etty is this...
Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth... (1830) 

The whole title is Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed, which is fairly impressive.  The story goes that Candaules thought his wife Nyssia was the most beautiful woman in the world and wanted to display her perky pinkness to Gyges.  Nyssia found out and told Gyges that either he killed Candaules and seize both her and throne or face execution.  He thought for about ten seconds and chose the former.  When Etty exhibited this picture, people were outraged at the unbridled sensuality, the complicitness of the audience as voyeur and the general unpleasantness of the subject matter.  I was surprised at the controversy - haven't we all seen worse?  Isn't it a typical artist's standpoint, basically the pimp at a peepshow?  I find the composition, the white vertical pillar of female form bisecting the perfidious men, one boastful, one bloodthirsty and controllable, glorious and unsettling.  I also think the fabric Nyssia holds looks like the stars and stripes, oddly...

This is also the sort of thing I associate with Etty...

Mlle Rachel (1840)

Rachel (the stage name of French actress Eliza Felix) was described as a 'dark brown Queen of Tragedy'.  With Manga-big Disney eyes, she looks like she is emoting like crazy and she came to the London stage in 1841, a year after this portrait was done.  It has a rough, unfinished look, yet captures the beauty of this young woman, who made a living out of looking on the verge of tears.  I really don't like this, it's too sketchy and unfinished for my tastes, yet I am completely in love with this...

Study for The Crochet Worker (Mary Ann Purdon) (1849)
This reminds me so strongly of Millais' portraits of Effie, for example...

As Millais produced images like this during the 1850s I would guess that he may have been familiar with Etty's work.  It has echoes of Pre-Raphaelite colours, the beautiful juxtaposing of the white, magenta and green and the shiny sweep of hair. Beautiful...

Elizabeth Potts (1834)
Oh, Miss Elizabeth Potts, aren't you fashionable?  She looks like a china doll, so stiff and formal and without the ability to move or else risk dislodging that crown of plaits and curls.  Dotted with cameos and dressed in her finery,  poor Miss Potts was given a bit of a rough ride when she was exhibited.  It was felt that Etty, a renown history painter was not skilled at portraiture as Miss Potts appeared to be sitting in a gloomy wood with a broom handle up her back.  Etty may not have won over his critics with this but he was smart enough to get paid by Elizabeth's Dad before he exhibited it.

Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball (1835)
Oddly, this portrait of Charlotte and Mary Williams-Wynn was heralded as a triumph.  Any guess to what costumes the sisters are wearing to the fancy dress ball?  I guess they are going as a pair of bath taps.

Female Nude (1830)
Part of the reason that the critics hailed Etty's move to portraiture was that he was mostly known for his female nudes.  It made a change for him to paint a dress, but when the nudes are as beautiful as the young lady above, then I don't know what the problem is.  She was my favourite at the exhibition, I adore her face and her vaguely bored expression.  It is a very modern work, reminding me of the work of Freud or Epstein, her expression less simpering that you would expect from 1830.

The Wrestlers (1840)
I suppose when it comes down to it, Etty is best known for his nude studies.  There is a lovely bit in the catalogue where they point out that the gentlemen in 'The Wrestlers' would have had to remained locked together for a considerable amount of time, not allowed to move while Etty painted.  If I was being less professional I would have something very saucy to say about that, but look how grown up I'm being.  Not a word.  Is it just me or is the man on the right sporting some elf ears?  Possibly this was going to be a picture of Pan wrestling or something., either way there is some astonishing flesh on display.  Etty practiced his flesh tones obsessively and liked to paint the entire spectrum of colours and it really shows here.  This is a painter who knows flesh.

Male Nude with Arms Up-Stretched (1828-30)
Still being really professional...My word.  Apparently there were supports hung from the ceiling of the Royal Academy, enabling an artist to string up his model, so they could hold up-stretched poses without fatigue.  There is a fascinating essay in the catalogue about how the picture changes if you rotate it, so that the model is on his back.  It becomes so utterly debauched, Mrs Walker is forced to have a sit down and fan herself.  Mmm, manflesh.  Sorry, where was I?  Oh, yes, being all professional...

The Standard Bearer (1830s)
See how I don't make any remark about lowering standards?  There is a discussion ongoing about whether or not Etty was gay, his attention to detail in his beautiful male nudes held up as evidence.  I don't know one way or the other, and a little part of me thinks that's his business not mine, but the man knew how to paint a male nude that makes ladies take a serious and professional look.  For the record, he also did girls...

Standing Female Nude (1835)
Blimey, that is some realistic, gorgeous skin.  Interestingly, there is no pretense with Etty that it is about anything else, even her face is in shadow.  I'm sure there are far less professional art historians out there who would say that the quality of Etty's flesh paintings makes them want to bite the canvas, but not me, no.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1840s)
In order to round this piece off before I admit to wanting to nibble parts of the anatomy of Etty nudes, I bring you this portrait.  We don't know who she is, but look at her expression.  If you were requesting a portrait, would you say 'Oh, and can you make me look like I'm really worried?'.  Her Victorian finery, her lace shawl and cap, her brooch, are all very standard, but her forehead is furrowed in a soft frown and her eyes are concerned.  Maybe it's a reflection of her black dress - has she lost someone, is she concerned for the future?  The fact that we know nothing fuels the feeling that her concerns were legitimate - was she worried that her future was uncertain?  For a painter that often paid no attention to the expression, this is such a striking display of emotion.  Possibly the glory of Etty can only be appreciated when his nudes are displayed with other pieces of his work.  I entered the gallery as a doubter and I left utterly seduced.  William Etty, you are a star.

'William Etty: Art & Controversy' is on at York Art Gallery until 22 January 2012.  Go and see it, you won't regret it.


  1. Not to my taste at all but a great review.
    JMW Turner called him a smutty dauber of 'bumboats' which made me laugh anyway. I don't know why but it also made me smile to discover he retied to York (where he was a major benefactor) to help his families gingerbread and confectionery business.

  2. I absolutely loved the Crochet Worker. As always, thanks for a fascinating post!

  3. Thanks for the comments. He was part of a gingerbread and confectionery business?! Yet another reason he is my dream husband (in addition to the fact that we have the same taste in men)... Mmmm, naked men and gingerbread....

  4. Tell Nyssia to have a look at this video:

    As I grow older, I care less about bodily perfection, and I find little faults in females more bearable, even more charming and lustful than the cold quality of marble.

    I think we are obsessed with bums( The good news for those who aren't is that you don't see orange skin when making love face to face.

  5. Mind you, when my backside is over 180 years old, I hope it is as good as Nyssia's...

    Thank you for your comments and the links :)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx