Exhibit of the Week: Greek myth a favourite subject for many artists

The Judgement of Paris by William Etty which is is the Scarborough Collections.
The Judgement of Paris by William Etty which is is the Scarborough Collections.
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Today, we celebrate the birthday of one of Yorkshire’s best-loved artists in a way he would have really appreciated – with a trio of glorious nudes.

William Etty is considered by many to be the first significant English painter of nudes, and is justly celebrated for his ability to depict flesh in oils on canvas, although the gorgeous jewel tones in our painting today – those emerald and coral drapes, that turquoise sky – show that he was no mean colourist, either.

Etty was born in York on March 10, 1787. He showed early artistic promise, but as the son of a miller and baker with a large family and little money, he had to leave school at the age of 11 and take an apprenticeship with a printer in Hull. He hated the work, and as soon as his indentures expired when he was 18, he moved to London to stay with his older brother and uncle, who was a partner in a successful lace firm.

William’s aim was to gain admission to one of the Royal Academy schools – still active today, and Britain’s oldest art schools. He worked hard and gained the friendship and patronage of the artist John Opie, whose recommendation of him to another artist, Henry Fuseli, eventually gained him a probationary place at the school; in 1807, he was accepted as a full student.

In his younger years, Etty gained little acclaim, but as time went on, he began to gain a reputation as a portraitist and painter of still lives. It is, though, for those historical paintings populated by many unclothed people that he is mainly remembered. Even when he was one of England’s most respected painters, he continued to attend life classes, which was considered most unseemly at the time.

And considering his keen interest in the female form, it’s odd that he never married, instead living, from 1824 until his death in 1849, with his niece, Betsy. But Etty was a painfully shy man who rarely socialised, so opportunities to meet prospective spouses were limited.

Although he spent most of his adult life in London, he always maintained close ties with the city of his birth. He was instrumental in the establishment of York’s first art school, and involved in both the campaigns to preserve the City’s historic walls and that to prevent York Minster from being radically altered after fires in 1829 and 1840, for which we must thank him today.

When he died, he was buried in the graveyard at St Olave’s Church on Marygate. His statue still stands outside the newly refurbished York Art Gallery, on Exhibition Square.

Our painting today, The Judgement of Paris (sometimes known as The Choice of Paris), dates from 1846 and is one of at least two versions of the same scene painted by Etty – there’s another from 1826 in the collections of National Museums Liverpool, at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight.

The Greek myth has been a favourite of artists for centuries – there are portrayals of the story by Rubens painted in the 1630s, and by Renoir from the early 20th century.

The story goes that Eris, the goddess of discord, was angry at being left off the invitation list to a wedding banquet, and did what she did best – created mayhem by producing a golden apple bearing the inscription ‘for the fairest’.

It fell to poor Paris of Troy to decide which of three powerful goddesses – Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite – should claim the apple as their prize. Etty’s painting depicts him handing the fruit to his choice, Aphrodite, after she promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. This led directly to the Trojan wars when the Greeks decided to claim her back.

The Judgement of Paris is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. It is on permanent display in the Laughton Room at Scarborough Art Gallery. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.