Attributed to William Etty RA (1787-1849); `Bathers Surprised`, An Oil on Canvas


Origin: English
Period: Early Nineteenth Century
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1810-40
Canvas Height: 6.3 inches
Canvas Width: 8 inches
With Frame: 16.5” x 14.5”

Painted in oils on canvas laid down on panel, depicting a series of seven nude or semi-nude bathers gathered at a pool, the central figure pointing in exclamation, with the other figures each showing differing reactions of surprise, with a part ruby red background consisting of a draped curtain over a tree trunk, the red again repeating lower right, presented in a good quality ornate composition moulded gilt frame with inset slip. Verso there are some very faint markings present ‘A J Wood Croft? Hall? Ovingham?”.

Although undeniably rather dirty, the quality of the painting still shines through. The use of light shows real dexterity as it plays upon the faces and torsos of the figures and upon the shimmering water beneath. Etty experimented with different poses, and the poise and shape of the figures here point to a keen knowledge of the human body and the use of colour is sparing but superbly effective. Under a torch light the blues, greens and reds are more pronounced and indicate the picture is more colourful than it is currently indicating to the viewer. The red of the composition seems to crop up on several other paintings by Etty and he seemed to favour rather dark backgrounds pierced with the greens and browns of trees and the draped reds of passion.

Many believed that the splendour of Etty’s richly coloured canvases was designed to disguise his underlying preoccupation with titillating forms of bodily display. Etty was repeatedly encouraged to 'turn from his wicked ways' and make his art 'fit for decent company'. This picture is perhaps most similar to Female Bathers Surprised by a Swan exhibited in 1841 or The Bathers (showing at Brooklyn Museum).
The work could thus no doubt do with a professional clean and some attention to three small areas of loss to the canvas itself, lower right. The compo frame has two small losses to the ornamentation.

William Etty is York’s foremost artist and his statue has pride of place outside York Art Gallery.  He was famous for his paintings of historical and mythical scenes but, in his day, Etty was also infamous for his paintings of nudes. Etty recalls in his autobiography: “My first panels, on which I drew, were the boards of my father’s shop floor; my first crayon, a farthing’s worth of white chalk”.  Crucially, Etty painted several such scenes of bathing during his career, most frequently calling on the landscape of the countryside of his native York.

A beautifully proportioned picture of real intrigue and one that deserves higher acclaim, Etty himself had a controversial reputation, but is a hairs breath away from being mentioned as the natural heir of the old masters.