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William Etty

William Etty

William Etty

William Etty (1787 – 1849) was best known for his history paintings containing nude figures. He was the first significant British painter of nudes and still life. Etty earned respect at the Royal Academy of Arts for his ability to paint realistic flesh tones. As a timid man, Etty rarely socialised and never married, and while he was Methodist, he was also deeply attached to the Roman Catholic Church.

A Tour of William Etty’s Art

  • Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm
    • “Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm” by William Etty was inspired by a metaphor in Thomas Gray’s poem “The Bard”. In the poem, the rule of a monarch was compared to a gilded ship whose occupants are unaware of an approaching storm. Etty chose to illustrate the metaphor by depicting a golden boat filled with and surrounded by nude and near-nude figures.

      The nude figure above the boat, representing Zephyrus, the Greek mythological personification of the west wind, blowing on the sails. Another nude representing Pleasure, lies on a large bouquet of flowers, loosely holding the helm of the boat and allowing Zephyr’s breeze to dictate its course. The naked figures were intended to express the themes of sexual appetites entrapping innocent youth, and the sexual power women hold over men. Museum: Tate Britain

  • The Sirens and Ulysses
    • “The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty depicts the scene from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus, who was called Ulysses by the Romans, is bewitched by the song of the Sirens.

      Ulysses was warned about the Sirens; however, he wanted to hear the song. So he ordered his ship’s crew to tie him up and to block their ears to prevent themselves from hearing the song and becoming bewitched. Etty portrayed the Sirens as naked young women, on an island strewn with decaying corpses. Museum: Tate Britain

  • William Etty’s Art
    • The Triumph of Cleopatra
      • “The Triumph of Cleopatra” by William Etty depicts a scene in which the Queen of Egypt, travels to Tarsus in Cilicia aboard a magnificently decorated ship to cement an alliance with the Roman general Mark Antony. Etty created a cramped and crowded composition with people in various states of undress, gathering on the bank to greet the ship’s arrival.

        The Triumph of Cleopatra is based loosely on Plutarch’s Life of Antony as repeated in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Museum:  Lady Lever Art Gallery

William Etty

A Tour of Artists

Reflections on William Etty

  • A painter who scandalised 19th century Britain with canvases of explicit nudes?


“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”
– Queen Victoria


Photo Credit: William Etty [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons