Venus and her retinue 1840, Private collection.

William Etty – British artist

Venus and her retinue 1840, Private collection.
Venus and her retinue 1840, Private collection.

William Etty is a British artist who enthusiastically worked in the nude genre, but remained a very modest and shy person all his life.

William Etty (March 10, 1787 November 13, 1849) the famous English painter of the first half of the XIX century, an outstanding master of historical and mythological painting. Etty is best known for his colorful nude paintings. The best masterpieces of his work are kept in museums in London and in private collections of art connoisseurs around the world. The master’s biography is full of numerous travels across Europe, and his personal life is still surrounded by an aura of mystery.

The Dangerous Playmate.
The Dangerous Playmate.

William Etty has been a commercially successful and highly sought after painter for most of his professional career. But for his fascination with the nude, he was constantly attacked by the press, and many representatives of British high society called the master “an obscene artist.”

Bathers frightened by a swan.
Bathers frightened by a swan.


William Etty was born on March 10, 1787 in the city of York in central England into a large family of a hereditary miller and bakery owner. His parents were deeply religious people, they raised their son in the strict traditions of Protestantism. From childhood, William was fond of drawing, but his father gave his youngest son to a local printer as an apprentice, barely he was eleven years old, but the boy continued to paint and dreamed of a career as a professional artist, but was forced to submit to the will of his parents.

Cupid and Psyche.
Cupid and Psyche.

In October 1805, the 18-year-old boy was finally able to leave the hated job in the printing workshop and immediately went to London, where his older brother Walter lived. The young man was determined to enter the Royal Academy of Arts, but in order to successfully pass the entrance exams, he spent a year and a half self-educated, drawing copies of antique sculptures in the studio of a master for making plaster statues near his brother’s house. One of William Etty’s sketches was accidentally seen by the artist John Opie, who showed the drawing to Professor Heinrich Füssli and advised him to take a talented young man as a student.

The Judgement of Paris.
The Judgement of Paris.

Under the patronage of Opie, William was admitted to the academy at the very beginning of 1807, where he studied for seven years. But the future artist had little traditional academic education, so he got a job as an assistant in the studio of the famous painter Thomas Lawrence. Although Lawrence didn’t take much of Etty’s training, working with an experienced craftsman proved to be very rewarding for the persistent student.

In 1811, William Etty took part for the first time in the exhibition of the British National Academy

After that he annually sent his works to such events. The paintings of the novice artist were not in great demand, but even then critics noted the special color scheme of his works.

The pleasure of sailing on a yacht.
The pleasure of sailing on a yacht.

In the summer of 1815, 28-year-old William Etty fell passionately in love, but an unknown darling rejected his courtship, and the hapless gentleman decided to leave the country. In a bad state of mind, he went to Paris, and then reached Italy, where he made many sketches, but could not get rid of depression. Meanwhile, one of his works at the competition at the National British Academy almost won the first prize, but due to the intrigues of ill-wishers, the painter was excluded from the competition. This unpleasant incident unexpectedly had a positive effect on Etty’s career, as rumors of it quickly spread throughout England.

In 1820, William returned to his homeland, and his professional career quickly took off. Several paintings by the young painter were acquired by wealthy London nobles, although the press mercilessly accused him of the obscenity of his works. Nevertheless, the master persistently continued to paint nude and did not pay attention to criticism.

Nude under the moon.
Nude under the moon.
In the summer of 1822, William again took a trip to Europe.

Having visited the capital of France, he made his way through Switzerland to Milan, where he lived for a couple of weeks. Then he visited Florence, Rome and Naples, but the longest he stayed in Venice, where he painted about fifty oil paintings and created several hundred pencil sketches. Members of the Venetian Academy were impressed by the masterpieces of the 35-year-old Briton and elected him an honorary member of the prestigious creative union.

In 1824, William Etty returned to foggy Albion, where he began to lead a very secluded life. Being by nature a shy and insecure person, the artist avoided noisy companies and had no friends. He settled in a modest apartment together with his niece Betsy, who was 15 years his junior. It was this woman who became the closest person to the master, but they were never connected by love relationships. Betsy was simply a faithful companion of her uncle and an exemplary housekeeper, she never married, devoting her whole life to caring for him.

William Etty Louise Rolls.
Louise Rolls.

In December 1828, William Etty became a member of the National Academy of Painting, but honorary titles did not interest him. He continued to create in his original style and stubbornly hid his personal life from outsiders. In the early 1840s, the artist visited Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, where he was able to see with his own eyes many paintings by ancient masters, including his idol Peter Rubens (Pieter Paul Rubens).

By that time, the artist’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. Over the years he suffered from asthma and, despite the efforts of doctors, the attacks became worse every year. Shortly before the painter’s death, the British Society of Arts organized a solo exhibition of his works in the capital, which was a huge success. A large-scale event physically and mentally literally devastated the already middle-aged artist, and he went to bed. And on November 13, 1849, William Etty, in the arms of Betsy’s niece, left this world forever in his home at the age of 62.

William Etty Window in Venice during the fiesta, 1822.
Window in Venice during the fiesta, 1822.
The most famous paintings by William Etty

The great English master of painting created many colorful masterpieces. And yet, the most famous paintings by William Etty are:

  • The Arrival of Queen Cleopatra in Cilicia (1821) is a work that made a splash at the British Academy exhibition and brought the artist wide fame. The picture did not arouse general admiration in the press, but it convinced the author himself of the correctness of the chosen creative path.
  • “The Battle: A Woman Praying for the Vanquished” (1825) is a work born of the painter’s imagination. Unlike most of his colleagues, Etty, when writing this picture, did not use the plot of an ancient myth, but gave free rein to his imagination.
  • “Kandavl, king of Lydia, surreptitiously shows his wife Gyges, one of the confidants, when she goes to bed” (1830) a masterpiece that for many years was considered unworthy of public demonstration in society. Despite the hostile reception from critics, the painting was bought by a famous patron right at the exhibition for an impressive amount of money, and today it is in the famous Tate gallery in London.
  • Sirens and Ulysses (1837) is a work in which the author depicted chimeras in the form of beautiful naked women, rather than creepy monsters. Due to the use of experimental techniques by the author, the painting fell into disrepair 20 years after its creation and was restored only in 2010.
William Etty Portrait of Miss Eliza Cook.
Portrait of Miss Eliza Cook.

William Etty was a very humble man who did not strive for fame and fortune. But he will forever remain in the memory of descendants as a genius master of British painting of the 19th century and the author of many beautiful masterpieces.

William Etty A bacchanalian.
A bacchanalian.
William Etty Preparing for the masquerade.
Preparing for the masquerade.
William Etty Girl in the image of Flora.
Girl in the image of Flora.
William Etty Flower girl.
Flower girl.