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Friday, January 31, 2014

William Etty

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges One of his Minister,
1830, William Etty
When artists visit art museums today, we often encounter paintings of nude figures. We pause, perhaps, give them the quick "once over" then move on, not aroused in any way, certainly not embarrassed, really not even much interested, in fact. Such antique art is, today, our of sync with our sexual psyches. When others besides artists visit art museums today...never mind it doesn't happen all that often. Okay, let's postulate that when it does, people are more concerned about whether their children have spotted the naked lady staring out at them from the canvas; or preventing them from doing so; and if it's "too late," what their reaction might be. With the exception of a few Renaissance masterpieces, the vast majority of such nude figures found their way onto canvas and into art museums during the 19th century (or shortly thereafter). This would mostly be during the so-called Victorian Era, which, ironically, we tend to think of as the height of prudery in the social realm where moral standards were exceedingly high (as compared to today, at least).
The Sirens and Ulysses, 1837, William Etty
--the "plain brown wrapper" is exceedingly thin.
William Etty, Self-portrait, 1823
Such an impression today is the result of a Victorian fa├žade of moral righteousness among those of the male gender. Men, psychologists tell us, are hardwired to be aroused by what they see. During the 19th century and before, ninety percent of all artists were men, and that was the case with virtually one-hundred percent of all artists painting nude figures. Although they no doubt enjoyed the act of painting a nude model, few artist could afford to do so regularly, for their own voyeuristic pleasure (models had to be paid). Let's face it, the painted nude figure, male or female, was little more than the 19th century version of pornography. It came with a "plain brown wrapper" of mythology, personal hygiene, allegory, ancient history, even biblical scenes, thinly applied as a veneer of moral justification for the unclad (or nearly so) figures. Often such images were painted life-size on enormous canvases, as if such a bold scale somehow lifted the work to high art making it more than what it really was--safe voyeurism. Men commissioned, critiqued, and bought these works. Male artists were only too ready, willing, and able to paint what their respectable male clients could not safely or morally observe in any other way. During the first half of the 19th century, leading the British pack of such artists was William Etty.

Male Nude Lying on a Shroud on Rocks, 1820-29, William Etty.
Male figures were often a good deal more explicit than this one.
Cupid and Psyche, 1821, William Etty
Around 1830, William Etty painted Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges One of his Ministers (top). Although not seeming noticeably obscene today, in 1830, despite the historic/mythological pretense, not only was his painting pornographic but downright perverted. Psychologists today have even adopted the king's name in describing the actions of a man (usually) who willingly exposes his spouse to another person for sexual purposes. It's called Candaulism. Sometimes, virtually all pretense of social acceptability fell away. Mythological "love" in the pagan embodiment of Cupid and Psyche (left) was a favorite theme for Etty and other such artists. Moreover such "sanitized" nudity was not limited to female figures. Etty's Male Nude Lying on a Shroud on Rocks (above) would also indicated that homoeroticism was alive and well in the Victorian Era, and living surreptitiously in the house next door, not limited to the likes of Oscar Wilde.

Mira, William Etty
Head of a Girl, William Etty
William Etty is remembered fondly in
his hometown of York.
William Etty was not exclusively a Victorian Era pornographer. He sometimes painted very chaste portraits of typical Victorian women, even children, in a typical Victorian mode. Yet the vast majority (perhaps as high as ninety percent) of his figures were nude. Etty became a member of the Royal Academy in 1828, yet despite this, his work is somewhat uneven. Time spent in Italy as a student gave him a stunning sense of color yet his drawing is sometimes disproportional. The heads of both figures in his Cupid and Psyche (the tondo above, left) are noticeably out of proportion to the bodies. Psyche's thigh is especially ill-proportioned. His 1826 Judgment of Paris (bottom, there are at least three different versions) is one of his largest and best works, though the buyer complained the landscape in the background seemed unfinished. Etty was no landscape painter. Despite this, William Etty seems to be a reasonably well-respected artist in the heady atmosphere of British art museums today. There's even a statue of him in York (above, left), outside the city art gallery. Born in 1787, he died in 1849, a lonely bachelor never able to confront in the flesh that which he painted.

The Judgment of Paris, 1825-26, William Etty,
apparently a "best-seller," he painted three versions.


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