"To the pure in heart all things are pure." - William Etty, Painter of Nudes

13 November 1849, William Etty, the first significant British painter of nudes, died in his native York.

“As a worshipper of beauty, whether it be seen in a weed, a flower, or in that most interesting form to humanity, lovely woman, in intense admiration of it and its Almighty Author, if at any time I have forgotten the boundary line that I ought not to have passed, and tended to voluptuousness, I implore His pardon; I have never wished to seduce others from that path and practice of virtue, which alone leads to happiness here and hereafter; and if in any of my pictures an immoral sentiment has been aimed at, I consent it should be burnt; but I never recollect being actuated in painting my pictures by such sentiment. That the female form, in its fulness, beauty of colour, exquisite rotundity, may, by being portrayed in its nudity, awake like nature in some degree an approach to passion, I must allow, but where no immoral sentiment is intended, I affirm that the simple undisguised naked figure is innocent. "To the pure in heart all things are pure."“ (William Etty)

William Etty: "The Sirens and Ulysses" (1837)

Beautiful and good. καλοκαγαθία. Physical beauty, kalós, combined with nobility of the mind, agathós – both aspects constitute a person’s arête, “excellence”, and one would be unthinkable without the other. Phryne, for instance, a famous courtesan of Athens and companion of the orator Hypereides, was accused of impiety to land a blow against her lover. When the Areopagus was in session to determine her fate, Hypereides the spellbinder simply removed Phryne’s robe and asked the Areopagites how such a beauty could be impious. And the jury, in awed reverence, found her not guilty. It was the Greeks who made nudity, the male far more than female, to something along the lines of the foundation of their artistic expression. In undisguised reverence of a human body’s beauty with strong erotic undercurrents, promoting the ideal nude to divinity and not the other way around like other, older cultures did. And with the central role the Greeks played in the aesthetic development of the Occident, the nude figure with the human body as primary subject became a singular and one of the most controversial traditions of Western art. Naturally, the Middle Ages in their theoretical hostility against life’s sensuality had no use for nudes outside obscenity, admittedly often grossly epic obscenities, but things changed with the Renaissance and, ironically enough and Greek ideal or not, sensuous depictions of the nude were comme il faut along with a convenient mythological and sometimes historical narrative. Celebrating nakedness in the fine arts under the auspices of Winckelmann’s noble simplicity and calm grandeur, ended up in some often highly neurotic ensembles full of repressed sexuality and other subtexts and representatives of some epochs, such as the Biedermeier, late Regency and, of course, the Victorian era, could not even tolerate mythological nudes. 

William Etty:
"Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed" (1830)

Early in the 19th century, painting à la Reynolds in the classically idealised grand manner, chiefly the swagger portrait, was the state of British art. Reynolds himself painted but one nude during his long career, the rest of his sitters were all very respectably clothed. Unfortunately, taste changed a bit by then, great daubs became all the rage, history, chiefly, and one found that modern clothing was rather unheroic in contrast to shining armour and those heroes of antiquity who ne’er saw a cannon ball fought naked anyway, judging from the artistic legacy of the Ancients. When the long wars with France were finally over in 1815, morals across Europe, from John O’Groats to Petersburg took a sharp turn towards no nonsense rigidness, depicting ancient history became the mother of all painting at the Royal Academy in London and while some, in the wake of the Romantic Movement, preferred mythology and others like Constable and Turner already worked on a counter-draft with landscapes and their own Romantic narrative, nudes began to show in British paintings again. Especially one artist, William Etty, made it a habit to blend history and mythology, a major point of criticism already for some influential purists, and managed to have at the very least one nude depicted on his often rather enormous canvasses. Most of his paintings usually overflew with them. And nobody really doubted his artistic skill. In fact, he was recognised as a master of painting human flesh in what Etty himself called Venetian colours in the manner of Titian and the 16th century Venetian school. Far too much flesh for many: "We take this opportunity of advising Mr Etty, who got some reputation for painting "Cleopatra's Galley", not to be seduced into a style which can gratify only the most vicious taste. Naked figures, when painted with the purity of Raphael, may be endured: but nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and on Mr Etty's canvass is mere dirty flesh”, The Times wrote in 1822.

William Etty: "Cleopatra's Arrival in Cilicia " (1821)

Shy, unattractive and rather quirky. Etty still visited life classes long after he was a recognised master, to kill time, as he said and much to the dismay of his peers, never married and lived together with his niece for more than twenty years, was extremely homesick when he went abroad, everywhere but in Venice, and all the nude models in London feared for their livelihood, when Etty decided to move back home to his native York for good a year before he died. Met with hostility since his first major success, “Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia” in 1821, he was equally celebrated as one of the greatest English painters by his contemporaries, a “triumph of the British school”. At least some of Etty’s pieces, like his imagination of “Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed“ from 1830 at least seem to have been conceived to deliberately shock the sensitivities of his audience and they did indeed cause some scandal, while many others were just overladen with nudes, sheets and cherubs swirling around them, sailing their pleasure barges right into the world of kitsch. Still, they were regarded as mere pornography by many and as celebrated as Etty was by others, his work was soon forgotten after his death, along with his portraits, still lifes and landscapes, in 1849.  While they made their first steps as artists 
a few Pre-Raphaelites like Millais were influenced by Etty’s nudes but after the 1870s nobody really was interested in the great daubs that once had shocked their grandparents and Etty’s charm of being the first British artist to make nudes his serious sujet became a party piece for art historians. 

And more about William Etty in the substantially excellent article on:


and 323 of Etty’s paintings can be admired on: