William Etty

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Statue of William Etty outside York Art Gallery

William Etty, York’s best known artist, devoted his career to the nude. He was born in York in 1787 in Feasegate where his father was a baker and confectioner; his family was staunch Methodist.

Aside from his infamous nude paintings, many lightly veiled in biblical works, which caused him to be accused by the press of indecency, Etty won recognition for his mythical and historical pieces such as Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cicilia and Pandora Crowned by the Seasons. He finally attained fame; however, his work has been criticised for its inconsistency and has gradually somewhat declined in popularity.

Etty was famous for his nude paintings

Etty was famous for his nude paintings

Etty received no artistic tuition in his early years and he recalled ‘drawing on the boards of his father’s shop floor often merely using white chalk’. At eighteen after a seven-year printing apprenticeship with the Hull Packet he moved to London and at twenty was enrolled at the Royal Academy where John Constable was also a student. The fee of one hundred guineas was paid by Etty’s generous uncle who also paid for his one-year private tuition from the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence. His uncle died in 1809 leaving him financially secure.

Etty’s submission of pieces to the Royal Academy’s exhibitions failed and he became despondent but success came in 1811 with acceptance of his Telemachus Rescuing Antiope. From his studies of the Venetian masters he acquired that excellence in colour for which his works are notable; Rubens and Titian were his inspiration. Etty continued to exhibit at the Academy though art critics were divided over his nudes. In 1826 he was feted for his artistic ability and in 1828 was made a Member of the Royal Academy having been an Associate from 1824.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed

Etty didn’t forget his home town.  In 1842 he established the York School of Design, which later became the York School of Art.  He also played a role in the conservation of the city walls, and took a stance in the preservation of medieval York.  He wrote from London in 1825 in defence of Clifford’s Tower; however, the walls were saved by public opinion and the intervention of city councillors. Etty’s other bequest to York is the considerable collection of his works held by York Art Gallery which has the largest collection of his work in the country.

Etty’s works, including landscapes and portraits are extensively exhibited in major British galleries including the Victoria and Albert Museum and also in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. In 1848, after completing his final work Joan of Arc, and in failing health, he retired to York although in the summer of 1849 he held a major exhibition of his works in London, fulfilling a lifelong wish. Later that year Etty died in York and was buried in St Olave’s Church, York, where he is commemorated in a stained glass window.

A life-sized Portland stone statue of Etty was erected in 1911 in front of the York Art Gallery, the centenary of which was commemorated by a major retrospective exhibition.

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