William Etty and the Classical Body

May 06, 2020, 11:00 AM

This episode is a discussion between Classicist Mary Beard and art historian Cora Gilroy-Ware, author of The Classical Body in Romantic Britain. It hones in on Etty’s 1837 The Sirens and Ulysses.

William Etty was obsessed with the female form. At the height of his career as a history painter, long after his election to Royal Academician in 1828, he sat side-by-side with novices to study naked models, a practice he continued even as his health faded toward the end of his life. Whether posed alone or in groups, these models served as templates for goddesses, graces, muses, nymphs and sirens in his finished paintings. Bypassing the conventions of his day, Etty abandoned the doctrine that the figure ought to be idealised according to the established norm of beauty based on Greco-Roman sculpture. His nudes tend to have breasts, thighs and other bodily features that are larger or more irregular than had long been customary. As the audience for contemporary British art grew steadily throughout his lifetime, his flouting of convention proved exciting and scandalous.

But there is more to Etty’s art than a move to a more naturalistic or realistic aesthetic. In his works, the female body remains mysterious and opaque, layered in flesh and rich paintwork. Many of the women who posed for him were employed simultaneously as sex workers, a fact that created a palpable sense of tension in the critical reception of his achievements, and arguably within the paintings themselves. This programme will take a look at this endlessly fascinating artist, exploring the conspicuous sensuality of his take on the classical body.