York Art Gallery

25 June, 2011 – 22 January, 2012

This major exhibition took a fresh look at the works of York-born artist William Etty RA (1787-1849) and uncovered the reasons for his controversial reputation. It was the first comprehensive reassessment of his art for more than 50 years.

Art and Controversy

Etty’s art divided public opinion during the first half of the nineteenth century more than that of any other British artist, with the possible exception of Turner.

During his 40-year career he produced a wide variety of landscapes and portraits, but is most famous for his repeated use of the female nude.

Many believed that the splendour of his richly coloured canvases was designed to disguise his underlying preoccupation with titillating forms of bodily display.

Etty was repeatedly encouraged to ‘turn from his wicked ways’ and make his art ‘fit for decent company’.

At the same time, one critic declared Etty to be ‘the greatest of all our history painters’. Another said the brilliancy of his colours were almost ‘too much for human eyes to dwell upon’.

He was described as the natural heir of the Old Masters; as ‘rivalling Rubens and the great Venetians on their own ground’.

The Exhibition

This exhibition included more than 100 of Etty’s works from Tate, the Royal Academy, the Royal Collection, Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Southampton Art Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery, as well as many works from York Art Gallery.

The works were displayed in four key areas:

Etty’s history paintings and his problematic relationship with the critics;

His passion for the Old Masters and the delicate copies he made after them;

The artist’s passion for the life class which includes numerous oil studies and sketches;