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William Etty | Narrative Victorian era painter

William Etty (10 March 1787 - 13 November 1849) was an British artist best known for his history paintings containing nude figures. He was the first significant British painter of nudes and still lifes. Born in York, he left school at the age of 12 to become an apprentice printer in Hull. He completed his apprenticeship seven years later and moved to London, where in 1807 he joined the Royal Academy Schools. There he studied under Thomas Lawrence and trained by copying works by other artists. Etty earned respect at the Royal Academy of Arts for his ability to paint realistic flesh tones, but had little commercial or critical success in his early years in London.

Etty's Cleopatra's Arrival in Cilicia, painted in 1821, featured numerous nudes and was exhibited to great acclaim. Its success prompted several further depictions of historical scenes with nudes. All but one of the works he exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1820s contained at least one nude figure, and he acquired a reputation for indecency.
Despite this, he was commercially successful and critically acclaimed, and in 1828 was elected a Royal Academician, at the time the highest honour available to an artist. Although he was one of the most respected artists in the country he continued to study at life classes throughout his life, a practice considered inappropriate by his fellow artists. In the 1830s Etty began to branch out into the more lucrative but less respected field of portraiture, and later became the first English painter to paint significant still lifes. He continued to paint both male and female nudes, which caused severe criticism and condemnation from some elements of the press.
An extremely shy man, Etty rarely socialised and never married. From 1824 until his death he lived with his niece Betsy (Elizabeth Etty). Even in London he retained a keen interest in his native York, and was instrumental in the establishment of the town's first art school and the campaign to preserve York city walls. While he never formally converted from his Methodist faith, he was deeply attached to the Roman Catholic Church and was one of the few non-Catholics to attend the 1838 opening of Augustus Pugin's chapel for St Mary's College, Oscott.
Etty was prolific and commercially successful throughout the 1840s, but the quality of his work deteriorated throughout this period. As his health progressively worsened he retired to York in 1848. He died in 1849, shortly after a major retrospective exhibition. In the immediate aftermath of his death his works became highly collectable and sold for large sums. Changing tastes meant his work later fell out of fashion, and imitators soon abandoned his style. By the end of the 19th century the value of all of his works had fallen below their original prices, and outside his native York he remained little known throughout the 20th century. Etty's inclusion in Tate Britain's landmark Exposed: The Victorian Nude exhibition in 2001–02, the high-profile restoration of his The Sirens and Ulysses in 2010 and a major retrospective of his work at the York Art Gallery in 2011–12 led to renewed interest in his work.
  • Background
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, British painting was strongly influenced by Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA). Reynolds believed the purpose of art was "to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact", and that artists should emulate Renaissance painters such as Rubens, Paolo Veronese and Raphael and make their subjects close to perfection. After Reynolds's death his Discourses on Art, which extolled the notion of an artist's duty to paint idealised subjects, remained Britain's primary theoretical work on art. The Royal Academy dominated British art, with the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition the most important event in the calendar. The Academy controlled the prestigious Academy art schools, an effective monopoly on the training of new artists, and preoccupied with technique.
While painters such as J. M. W. Turner (a strong supporter of the Royal Academy) were beginning to move away from the influence of the Old Masters to create uniquely British styles, they adhered to principles established by Reynolds.
In the opinions then current at the Royal Academy and among critics, the most prestigious form of painting was considered history painting, in which an artwork illustrated a story. It was thought that such works enabled British artists to show themselves as equal or even superior to those European artists active at the time, as well as to the Old Masters. Other forms of painting such as portraiture and landscapes were considered lesser styles, as they did not give the artist as much opportunity to illustrate a story but instead were simply depictions of reality.
Nonetheless, even the most eminent artists would often devote time to portrait painting, as portraits were generally commissioned by the subjects or their families, providing a guaranteed source of income to the artist; two of the first three presidents of the Royal Academy (Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence) had made their names as portrait painters. Owing to a lack of patrons willing to commission history paintings, by the early 19th century history painting in England was in serious decline.
William Etty was born in Feasegate, York, on 10 March 1787, the seventh child of Matthew and Esther Etty, née Calverley. Although Matthew Etty was a successful miller and baker, he bore a large family and was never financially secure. Esther Calverley's brother unexpectedly inherited the title of Squire of Hayton in 1745, nine years before Esther's birth, but disowned her following her marriage to Matthew as he considered him beneath her station. The family were strict Methodists and the young William was raised as such, although he disliked the spartan appearance of the Methodist chapel and liked to attend his Anglican parish church or York Minster when able.
The young William showed artistic promise from an early age, drawing in chalk on the wooden floor of his father's shop. From the age of four he attended local schools in York, before being sent at the age of 10 to Mr. Hall's Academy, a boarding school in nearby Pocklington, which he left two years later. On 8 October 1798, at the age of 11, William was apprenticed as a printer to Robert Peck of Hull, publisher of the Hull Packet. While Etty found the work exhausting and unpleasant, he continued to draw in his spare time, and his job gave him the opportunity to broaden his education by reading books. It seems likely that it was working as a printer that led him to realise for the first time that it was possible for someone to make a living drawing and painting.
On 23 October 1805 Etty's seven-year indenture with Peck expired, an event greeted with great happiness as he intensely disliked the job. He remained in Hull for a further three weeks as a journeyman printer. He moved to London "with a few pieces of chalk-crayons in colours", to stay with his older brother Walter in Lombard Street. Walter was working for the successful gold lace manufacturer Bodley, Etty and Bodley, in which their father's brother, also named William Etty, was partner. He arrived in London on 23 November 1805, with the intention of gaining admission to the Royal Academy Schools.
  • Training
Applicants to the Royal Academy Schools were expected to pass stringent ability tests, and on his arrival in London Etty set about practicing, drawing "from prints and from nature". Aware that all successful applicants were expected to produce high quality drawings of classical sculptures, he spent much time "in a plaster-cast shop, kept by Gianelli, in that lane near to Smithfield, immortalised by Dr. Johnson's visit to see 'The Ghost' there", which he described as "My first academy".
Etty obtained a letter of introduction from Member of Parliament Richard Sharp to painter John Opie. He visited Opie with this letter, and showed him a drawing he had done from a cast of Cupid and Psyche. Impressed by the quality of his work, Opie in turn recommended Etty to Henry Fuseli, who accepted Etty into the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer. Having satisfactorily completed drawings from casts of Laocoön and "the Torso of Michelangelo", Etty was accepted as a full student on 15 January 1807.

Shortly after Etty joined the RA, four major lectures on painting were delivered by John Opie in February and March 1807. In them, Opie said that painting "brings into view the heroes, sages, and beauties of the earliest periods, the inhabitants of the most distant regions, and fixes and perpetuates the forms of the present day; it presents to us the heroic deeds, the remarkable events, and the interesting examples of piety, patriotism and humanity of all ages; and according to the nature of the action depicted, fills us with innocent pleasure, excites our abhorrence of crimes, moves us to piety, or inspires us with elevated sentiments". Opie rejected Reynolds's tradition of idealising the subjects of paintings, observing that he did not believe "that the flesh of heroes is less like flesh than that of other men".Opie advised his students to pay great attention to Titian, whose use of colour he considered unsurpassed, advising students that "colouring is the sunshine of the art, that clothes poverty in smiles [...] and doubles the charms of beauty. Opie's opinions made a deep impression on the young Etty, and he would hold these views throughout his career.
  • Legacy
Etty had planned for a burial in York Minster, but neglected to cover the necessary costs in his will. With Yorkshire local government in political and financial chaos in the wake of the bankruptcy of George Hudson, there was no political will to organise a public subscription or to waive the fees, and as a consequence Etty was buried in the churchyard of St Olave's Church, his local parish church. On 6 May 1850 the contents of his studio were auctioned, in a total of 1034 lots including around 900 paintings; some of these paintings were incomplete studies later completed by other artists to increase their value. In the years following his death Etty's work became highly collectable, his works fetching huge sums on resale. 
He continued to be regarded as a pornographer by some, with Charles Robert Leslie observing in 1850 "It cannot be doubted that the voluptuous treatment of his subjects, in very many instances, recommended them more powerfully than their admirable art; while we may fully believe that he himself, thinking and meaning no evil, was not aware of the manner in which his works were regarded by grosser minds". Six months after William's death, Betsy Etty married chemist Stephen Binnington, a distant relation of the Etty family. She moved into his house in Haymarket, and some time after his death moved to 40 Edwardes Square, where she died in 1888 at the age of 87.
While Etty did have admirers, the patchy quality of his later work meant that he never acquired the circle of imitators and students that could have led to him being seen as the founder of the English realist movement, now considered to have begun in 1848 with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, two of the three founders of the Pre-Raphaelites, were heavily influenced by Etty's early works but recoiled from his later style. Holman Hunt recollected that "in my youth [Etty] had lost the robustness he once had [...] the paintings of his advanced age cloyed the taste by their sweetness". Millais had consciously modelled his style on Etty, and his works prior to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelites are very similar in composition, but after 1848 the only similarity in style is the use of colour. As Pre-Raphaelitism waned Millais's style became more varied, and some of his later work such as The Knight Errant owes a strong debt to Etty's influence.
During his life Etty had acquired followers such as Irish painters William Mulready and Daniel Maclise, but both rejected Etty's preoccupation with nudes. Mulready painted nudes but became best known for domestic genre paintings, while Maclise chose to specialise in more traditional history paintings and exhibited only one nude work in his career. One of the few painters who consciously attempted to continue Etty's style after his death was William Edward Frost, who had been an acquaintance of Etty's since 1825. In the early 1830s Frost painted on commission for Thomas Potts (whose 1833 commission of Etty to paint his daughter Elizabeth's portrait had been Etty's first significant portrait commission), and later was commissioned on Etty's recommendation to paint a portrait of Etty's cousin Thomas Bodley. Frost successfully imitated Etty throughout his career, to the extent that his figure studies and Etty's are often misattributed to each other. Although Frost eventually became a Royal Academician in 1870, by this time Etty's style of painting had badly fallen out of fashion.
Victorian painting had gone through radical changes, and by the 1870s the realism of Etty and the Pre-Raphaelites had given way to the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement, abandoning the traditions of storytelling and moralising in favour of painting works designed for aesthetic appeal rather than for their narrative or subject. Although the aesthetic movement ultimately led to a brief revival of history painting, these works were in a very different style to Etty's. The new generation of history painters such as Edward Burne-Jones, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton sought to depict passivity, rather than the dynamism seen in previous works depicting the classical world. By the end of the 19th century, the value of all of Etty's works had fallen below their original prices.As the 20th century began, the increasingly influential Modernist movement, which came to dominate British art in the 20th century, drew its inspiration from Paul Cézanne and had little regard for 19th-century British painting.
In 1911 the city of York belatedly recognised Etty. A statue of Etty by G. W. Milburn was unveiled on 1 February outside the York Art Gallery, and a retrospective of 164 Etty paintings was held at the gallery despite opposition from some of Etty's descendants who refused to lend works for it. William Wallace Hargrove, proprietor of the York Herald, gave a speech recalling his memories of knowing Etty. Outside York, Etty generally remained little-known, with the majority of those galleries holding his works, other than the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the Russell-Cotes Museum and Anglesey Abbey, tending to keep them in storage.
Minor Etty exhibitions in London in 1936 and 1938 had little impact, and likewise an exhibition of 30 Etty paintings in 1948 to mark the reopening of the York Art Gallery and another York exhibition of 108 paintings the following year to mark the centenary of his death. In 2001–02 four Etty paintings were included in Tate Britain's landmark Exposed: The Victorian Nude exhibition, which did much to raise Etty's profile, and established Etty as "the first British artist to paint the nude with both seriousness and consistency". The restoration of The Sirens and Ulysses, completed in 2010, led to increased interest in Etty, and in 2011-12 a major exhibition of Etty's works was held at the York Art Gallery. The York Art Gallery continues to hold the largest collection of Etty's works.

William Etty (York, 1787-1849) è stato un pittore Britannico. Figlio di un mugnaio che si era stabilito in città con la famiglia aprendo una bottega da fornaio e alimentari, ha una scarsa istruzione, come ai tempi veniva impartita al popolo, viene impiegato in una tipografia che non ha ancora dodici anni.
Dopo i sette anni di apprendistato, allora in uso, ottenuto il "diploma" dal suo padrone, William Etty, desideroso di provare le sue capacità nell'ambito artistico, si trasferisce a Londra, aiutato dal fratello maggiore e da un ricco zio che si diletta d'arte.
A Londra dal 1806 il diciannovenne a iniziato il suo cammino d'artista copiando tutto quello che trovava e è proprio la copia di una copia di "Amore e Psiche" con la quale ottiene di essere ammesso all'Accademia di Belle Arti e nell'estate del 1807 ottenne dallo zio le cento ghinee necessarie per partecipare ad un corso privato di Sir Thomas Lawrence, che era al massimo della sua carriera.
I lavori di William Etty per alcuni anni sono evidentemente influenzati dal manierismo dei Lawrence, ma, anche se i progressi come pittore sono notevoli, non ottiene alcun successo.
Stretto fra nuovi pittori in ascesa, forse più bravi di lui, come Wilkie, Haydon, Collins e John Constable, i lavori di William Etty vengono regolarmente rifiutati dalle esposizioni dell'Accademia, fino al 1811 quando viene accettato il suo "Telemaco che salva Antiope".
Nel 1816, dopo anni di perseverante lavoro per recuperare gli svantaggi della sua prima formazione, intraprende un viaggio in Italia per approfondire la sua conoscenza dell'arte.
Il viaggio dura solo tre mesi e lo studente-pittore non riesce ad andare più a sud di Firenze e, tornato a Londra, continua a dipingere in un'atmosfera di sfiducia e quasi di irrisione accusato dalla stampa di "indecenza" per i nudi che affollano i suoi quadri.
Pittura di William Etty.
Nel 1820 e 1821 due suoi quadri esposti alla Royal Academy, "Coral-finders" e "L'arrivo di Cleopatra in Cilicia", ottengono molta attenzione e qualche parola di favore.
Nel 1822 riprende il viaggio in Italia, fermandosi a Parigi per copiare alcune opere al Louvre, dove sorprende gli altri pittori per la rapidità e fedeltà di riproduzione, qualità che sorprende anche i colleghi romani quando copia le opere dei pittori del Rinascimento.
William Etty rimane impressionato dai grandi lavori di Raffaello e di Michelangelo a Roma, ma alla fine il luogo che trova più consono alla sua arte è Venezia che personalmente considera come la più grande città d'Arte in Italia.
Nel suo stile pittorico che ha molto più del Veneziano che di qualsiasi altra scuola italiana, Etty dipinse composizioni storiche, mitologiche e nudi femminili, dimostrando una sensibilità al colore forte e caldo.
Tornato a Londra nel 1824 ha la sorpresa di trovare una nuova favorevole atmosfera e la carriera del pittore da quel momento prosegue nella fama senza interruzioni: nominato socio della Royal Academy, quattro anni dopo è promosso alla piena dignità di Accademico.
Nel 1830 William Etty intraprende un nuovo viaggio d'arte attraverso il continente, ma sorpreso a Parigi da un'insurrezione, torna a casa più in fretta possibile.
Nel quarto decennio della sua vita il pittore prosegue, con zelo e senza sosta, nei suoi studi e nella produzione di nudi: già da giovanissimo aveva scelto di diventare pittore perché, secondo lui, il nudo femminile era "l'opera più gloriosa di Dio" e la sua pittura voleva essere la glorificazione di Dio.
Insegnante all'Accademia, aveva l'abitudine di lavorare con gli studenti, nonostante l'ostracismo di alcuni suoi colleghi accademici, che pensava che lavorare alla pari con gli studenti fosse indegno.
Nel 1840, e di nuovo nel 1841, Etty intraprende un viaggio nei Paesi Bassi, per vedere Galleria opere d'arte di Rubens nelle chiese e nelle gallerie pubbliche.
Due anni dopo, per raccogliere nuovo materiale per quello che lui chiamava "la sua ultima epica", il suo famoso ritratto di Giovanna d'Arco, si reca in Francia, anche se questo lavoro, terminato nel 1848, si rivelerà un impegno troppo pesante per la sua età.
Giovanna d'Arco che rivela, oltre la passione dell'artista, anche la stanchezza e la decadenza del pittore, riscuoterà il prezzo più alto di tutti i suoi migliori lavori.
Nell'ultimo anno della sua vita William Etty si è dedicato alla preparazione di una mostra personale dei suoi lavori.
Fra molte difficoltà e fatiche il pittore è riuscito a raccogliere dalle varie parti delle isole britanniche la maggioranza dei suoi quadri, riempiendo, nell'estate del 1849, la grande sala impegnata a Londra.
Il 13 novembre di quello stesso anno William Etty morì, ricevendo, come omaggio alla sua arte, un funerale pubblico nella sua città natale.
William Etty occupa un posto sicuro tra gli artisti inglesi, anche se il suo disegno, spesso sbagliato, denuncia la mancanza di formazione scolastica, viene riscattato dal sentimento e dalla abilità pittorica che ha pochi eguali. 
Le sue qualità si rivelano in particolare nei numerosi studî e bozzetti che ebbero notevole influsso su J. E. Millais e G. F. Watts.