Stories in Paintings: Etty’s Tales of the Surprising Naked Attraction of Medieval Women

Stories in Paintings: Etty’s Tales of the Surprising Naked Attraction of Medieval Women

William Etty (1787–1849) was a very popular narrative painter of the early Victorian era in Britain, and a contemporary of JMW Turner. Unlike Turner, whose reputation and popularity has only grown since his death, Etty’s work soon fell from favour, and has only been re-examined properly in this century.

Trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London from 1807, nearly twenty years after Turner started there, he was praised, but achieved little external recognition until 1821. By 1828 he had ascended sufficient steps on the ladder of recognition to be elected to the Royal Academy, and from then until his death in 1849 was very popular. Throughout his career, he continued to attend life classes, and almost invariably incorporated at least one female or male nude figure in his narrative work. He also painted many separate nude figures.

Etty was an extremely skilled copyist; in his early career he painted several superb copies of Old Masters, including the best in existence of Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

He never married, but lived with his niece, Betsy, and it is generally accepted that the quality of his work deteriorated during the 1840s.

Pandora Crowned by the Seasons (1824)

In Classical Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman created by the gods. She is best known for opening a jar (Pandora’s Box) which released all the evils on humanity, leaving only Hope inside the jar. Etty’s painting shows Pandora in the centre, after she had been animated by the gods, being crowned by the Seasons. This is prior to the opening of her jar of evils, which is a curious stage in the story for depiction.

William Etty (1787–1849), Pandora Crowned by the Seasons (1824), oil on canvas, 87.6 × 111.8 cm, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds, England. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting also gave rise to a lot of critical ambivalence, being seen as both academic but mischievous, and openly voluptuous.

Hero and Leander (1827-29)

Etty painted two main works telling the story of Hero and Leander.

Another classical legend, this tells of the hapless romance of Leander (a man) and Hero (a woman). She was a priestess of Aphrodite, living in a temple at Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles in Turkey). He lived in Abydos on the opposite side of the strait, now in Asia Minor. Leander fell in love with Hero, and each night through the summer and autumn swam across the dangerous waters to be with her, consummating their relationship. To guide him across, Hero lit a torch at the top of her tower.

One night, a storm blew up, and extinguished the light as Leander was swimming across the rough waters. Leander lost his way, and was drowned in front of Hero. Seeing his corpse, she threw herself from the tower, to die and rejoin him.

Etty’s earlier painting of The Parting of Hero and Leander (1827) shows the two lovers embraced, at the moment that Leander is about to start his swim back over the Hellespont to Abydos, at night.

William Etty (1787–1849), The Parting of Hero and Leander (1827), oil and metal leaf on canvas, 86.4 x 86.4 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Its sequel, Hero, Having Thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body (1829), leaps forward to the moment after the climax, and the peripeteia of the story, at its ending: Leander has already drowned, Hero already thrown herself from the tower, and is now in the (rather unconvincing) throes of death, and just about to join her lover in the afterlife.

William Etty (1787–1849), Hero, Having Thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body (1829), oil on canvas, 75 x 92.5 cm, formerly in a Private collection, now in The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite Etty’s peculiar choice of images from the story, the second painting in particular was universally praised for its poignancy and avoidance of the macabre.

You can see Turner’s version here; that appears to be considerably more successful in terms of depiction of the narrative, but a dismal failure in terms of area of naked flesh displayed.

Study for Judith and Holofernes (c 1827)

This is a study for the central painting in Etty’s triptych telling this story, which is currently in need of rescue from the damage caused by his use of bitumen.

The apocryphal Book of Judith tells of how Judith, a beautiful Israelite widow, saved her people when they were threatened by the Assyrians. She dressed in her finest and perfumed herself lavishly, and went with her maidservant to the Assyrians, promising that she would show them a way to defeat the Israelites. She was taken to Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s general, and stayed with him for three nights, winning his confidence. On the fourth night, he threw a banquet for her, where Holofernes drank so much wine that he fell into a drunken stupor.

With her maid standing guard outside Holofernes’ tent, Judith took his battle sword, and cut his head off:Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head, and said, “Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day!” And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him. (Judith, 13:7-8.)

Judith then gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who put it in her bag of meat. The pair them left the camp, and returned to the Israelites. Showing the head to them, there was great celebration that she had killed Holofernes, and the Assyrians fled in fear.

William Etty (1787–1849), Study for Judith and Holofernes (c 1827), oil on millboard, 30.5 x 40.6 cm, York Art Gallery, York, England. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: :: Public Domain.

I have already shown some of the best of the classical depictions of this story here. In contrast to those, Etty dodges the gore and horror of the climax of the story, and opts to show Judith just before she starts to hack Holofernes’ head off: she has taken hold of the hair of his head, and raising his battle sword to the heavens, is calling on the Lord God of Israel to strengthen her.

Benaiah (1829)

The story of Benaiah is one of the less familiar narratives from the Old Testament, in the second book of Samuel. Benaiah was the leader of David’s army, who fought and killed ‘two lion-like men of Moab’, as Etty shows here. At the left rests the body of the first, face-down, and at the right the second is just about to die from a blow by Benaiah’s dagger.

William Etty (1787–1849), Benaiah (small copy) (1829), oil on canvas, 63.7 x 80.5 cm, York Art Gallery, York, England. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: :: Public Domain.

Etty has shown the story at the climax of the action, although he is careful to avoid any distressful gore: even Benaiah’s dagger is barely tainted by the blood of the first victim. The body language is particularly striking, though, and the near-nude poses of the two living men impressive portrayals of musculature in tension. The critics unfortunately were quick to find fault with the proportions of Benaiah’s body (the legs in particular), which perhaps says more about the critics than it does about Etty’s painting.

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

This is a strange story which has been painted by several artists over the centuries, and usually raises controversy.

According to Herodotus, King Candaules of Lydia was proud of his wife Nyssia’s great beauty. To prove this to his bodyguard/general Gyges, Candaules invites Gyges to watch Nyssia undress for bed. She notices Gyges’ spying on her, and challenges him to either kill himself, or to kill the king and assume the throne himself. Gyges chooses the latter, of course.

William Etty (1787–1849), Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed (1830), oil on canvas, 45.1 x 55.9 cm, The Tate Gallery, London (Presented by Robert Vernon 1847). Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Etty, in common with Jacob Jordaens and Eglon van der Neer (neither of whose paintings he would have seen), and Jean-Léon Gérôme much later, chose to show the moment that Nyssia removed the last item of her clothing which is prior to the climax or moment of peripeteia. There was a predictable reaction to this, with claims that Etty’s painting was lascivious. Etty, however, made the case that he was attacking the contemporary view of a wife as a man’s chattel. That may have explained the subject, but hardly the moment which he chose to show in his painting.

Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm (1830-2)

Etty started work on this painting as early as 1818, and made an initial attempt at it in 1822. This is the version which he completed and exhibited in 1832, and is now in Tate Britain.

This is apparently inspired by a metaphor in Thomas Gray’s poem The Bard (1757). This compares the initially bright start to King Richard the Second’s reign, which rapidly became notoriously bad, to a gilded ship whose occupants were blissfully unaware of an approaching storm. He said that he intended this to be a moral warning about the pursuit of pleasure, and in doing so populates his ship with cavorting nudes. He does, though, show the approaching storm in the background.

Etty accompanied the painting with the following lines from The Bard:Fair laughs the Morn, and soft the Zephyr blows,While proudly riding o’er the azure realm,In gallant trim the gilded vessel goes,Youth on the prow and Pleasure at the Helm;Regardless of the sweeping whirlwind’s swayThat, hushed in grim repose, expects its evening prey

William Etty (1787–1849), Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm (1830-2), oil on canvas, 158.7 x 117.5 cm, The Tate Gallery, London (Presented by Robert Vernon 1847). Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The critics of the day struggled to understand Etty’s point, with some claiming that he had misinterpreted the poem, which was actually about King Edward the First’s slaughter of the country’s bards. Others simply accused him of having a lascivious mind.

Venus and her Satellites (replica) (1835)

This is another puzzling story to depict in a painting of that time: it shows Venus being assisted in her dressing and ‘toilet’ the morning after a night of passionate lovemaking with Mars. He is seen, back to the viewer, at the left, still sleeping it off, his suit of armour hanging by his head and his sword left on the ground. Venus, herself almost naked and post-coital, is surrounded by six nearly-naked maidens, who are being distracted by her beauty.

William Etty (1787–1849), Venus and her Satellites (replica) (1835), oil on wood, 78.7 x 110.4 cm, York Art Gallery, York, England. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: :: Public Domain

Even more strangely, his critics did not mention the event which Etty has shown, only complained once again at the amount of naked female flesh on display. Perhaps that was the more acceptable reason to put into print.

Musidora: The Bather ‘At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed’ (replica) (c 1846)

This painting of a nude woman bathing in a stream is a popular motif, which Etty related to James Thomson’s poem Summer (1727). In this, Musidora slips into the cool of the stream. She in unaware that a man, Damon, is hidden in the bushes and watching her. Damon is torn between the desire to stay and delight in her nakedness, or to retreat out of respectful modesty. Etty accompanied the painting with the following lines from that poem:How durst thou risk the soul-distracting viewAs from her naked limbs of glowing white,Harmonious swelled by nature’s finest hand,In folds loose-floating fell the fainter lawn,And fair exposed she stood, shrunk from herself,With fancy blushing, at the doubtful breezeAlarmed, and starting like the fearful fawn?Then to the flood she rushed.

William Etty (1787–1849), Musidora: The Bather ‘At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed’ (replica) (c 1846), oil on canvas, 65.1 x 50.2 cm, The Tate Gallery, London (Bequeathed by Jacob Bell 1859). Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Although this motif (and its many variants) is usually considered to be a sly opportunity of showing a female nude when public opinion might find that objectionable, Etty may have been a bit more subtle in his approach here. He does not show Damon, but perhaps puts the viewer into his place, facing the same quandary. Thankfully his critics must have seen the quandary in which he had put them, and were very positive towards it.

Delilah before the Blinded Samson (date not known)

I have been unable to locate a date for this last painting by Etty. It shows the very familiar story of Samson and Delilah, from the Book of Judges. Samson was an Israelite with phenomenal strength, who was giving the Philistines a hard time. They approached Delilah and paid her to act as a temptress, to discover the reason for his strength, and attack it to weaken him. Delilah found out that cutting Samson’s hair would render him weak, so did that. Now that they could overpower him, the Philistines took him, blinded him, and fettered him in prison.

William Etty (1787–1849), Delilah before the Blinded Samson (date not known), oil on canvas, 72.4 x 90.8 cm, York Art Gallery, York, England. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: :: Public Domain.

Etty again makes an unusual choice in the moment that he depicts: Delilah, dressed in regal but excessive clothing with her hair wrapped in pearls and jewels, has come to visit the blind Samson in prison where he is in chains. He sets this outdoors, rather than in a prison cell. Delilah appears to be trying to make her peace with him, but Samson struggles against his chains and is not to be tempted by her again.

Apart from his portraits, this is one of Etty’s least flesh-rich paintings, with only the body of Samson shown in relatively modest undress. This may have been Etty’s moral message, that once betrayed, you should recognise temptation when it revisits. However I have been unable to find any good commentary which reveals more information about this painting.


Technically, Etty was a very accomplished painter, but most of his narratives show moments which are neither of climax, nor peripeteia. As a result they do not have the power of more masterly narrative paintings. Several of them do seem to have been carefully calculated to be as provocative as possible without crossing the line of what was then considered indecent. Perhaps he was so innocent and enthralled by nude human figures, but I cannot help but think that he was more interested in pushing the bounds.


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