From the time he made drawings in chalk on the floor of his father’s bakery in York, England, William Etty demonstrated a talent for art. Born March 10, 1787, Etty eventually specialized in the female nude, a shocking subject for the nineteenth century. The Old Masters, whom Etty loved and studied, painted the nude, but Etty brings a more modern touch to the old themes, as in Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed (above, from 1830). Nyssia, the king’s wife, appears much too lifelike for the world of myth. In this scene of voyeurism (in which the king allows his general to see his wife undressed, which leads her to plot with Gyges to kill the king), Etty himself indulges in voyeurism and asks us along. Such elements have always been a part of mythology, but Etty brings them even more out in the open.
After an apprenticeship with a printer, Etty entered the Royal Academy School and studied with Henry Fuseli, whose own dramatic nudes must have left an impression on Etty. Etty later studied with Sir Thomas Lawrence, a master portraitist of the age, but Etty’s main focus remained with the female form. He found his ideal education in the works of the Old Masters, especially Rubens and Titian, taking their mythological nude figures and revising them for the Romantic age. In Hero and Leander (above, from 1828-1829), Hero has just swum across the Hellespont to be with his love, Leander. She sprawls across his weary body, mere scraps of clothing covering their bodies, which seem to connect into a single diagonal that reaches into the depth of the picture. Fuseli’s flair for the dramatic clearly influenced Etty’s approach to the human figure.
The press criticized Etty during his lifetime, charging him with indecency over his nudes. The Royal Academy of Arts, however, elected him to join them in 1825 in recognition of his talents, choosing Etty over John Constable for the position. Etty’s The Judgement of Paris (above, from 1825-1826) epitomizes his plight. Jammed full of bravura nudes, all with the necessary mythological “cover” to retain a sense of decency, the original buyer of the painting complained that the landscape of the background seemed unfinished, with Etty’s attention glued to the lovely ladies on display. Etty himself never married and was reportedly a shy bachelor, content to paint beautiful female bodies but never able to approach one in the flesh.