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Masterpiece of the Month: William Etty, Classical Composition: Bacchanal (undated, early 19th century)

William Etty, Classical Composition: Bacchanal (undated), oil on panel, 60 x 71 cm

Anna Tietze unpacks William Etty’s, Classical Composition: Bacchanal in the December edition of Masterpiece of the Month

About Masterpiece of the Month

Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection. Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).


This is one of the works presented to the gallery in 1938 by the Australian-born mining magnate Sir Edmund Davis. Davis moved to South Africa in the 1870s as a young man, but by the 1890s he and his wife Mary had settled in London. Here they befriended contemporary – though traditionally-inclined – artists and began to build up a collection of largely English art. In the early years of the twentieth century, they presented four works from their collection to the newly-established Johannesburg Art Gallery (1910) and thirty to the Luxembourg Museum in Paris (1915). In 1934, Edmund Davis made a return visit to South Africa. Once again he proposed to offer works from his collection to the Johannesburg Art Gallery but he was persuaded to turn his attention this time to Cape Town instead.

In 1935, 1936, and again in 1938, a year before his death, Davis gave a range of works to the South African National Gallery, numbering forty-eight in all. All were by British artists and this Etty is the earliest of them, dating as it does from the early nineteenth century. The presentation was gratefully received but it further added to the very British focus of the gallery’s collection, something that many were hoping to reverse in favour of a much greater emphasis on the national school.

Analysis of the work

William Etty (1787-1849) was one of the very few British artists painting the nude in the early years of the nineteenth century – and the majority of his paintings were of the female nude. These sensuous and semi-erotic works made Etty a controversial artist in his day. Indeed, he was heavily criticised in many quarters for painting what was frequently described as little more than a kind of pornography.i And yet he also had plenty of admirers and his work often sold for high prices.

As the title of this work suggests, this is a nineteenth-century reworking of a theme from ancient Greece: bacchanales were pagan celebrations of Bacchus, the god of wine and fertility. The celebrations were particularly associated with women, followers of Bacchus called bacchante or maenads, and were characterised by drunkenness and wild orgiastic dancing. Commemorated in ancient literature and art, the bacchanale was one of the pagan themes revived by Italian artists in the Renaissance as part of their drive to revive and celebrate ancient classical culture.

While Catholic Italian artists were able to reconcile the pagan interest in the nude with their religious beliefs, it was more of a stretch for the shy Methodist bachelor William Etty. He claimed, however, that a purely aesthetic love of beauty lay behind his preoccupation with the nude. The concept of history painting also offered an excuse; this was a kind of revered ‘high’ art aimed at those who had received a classical education. The themes of history painting were stories taken from ancient Greek and Latin literature, ones which dealt with timeless and universal human issues. Etty always couched his images of nudes within the frame of history painting and in this case turned to the classical literary theme of Bacchus and his life: for the ancient Greeks, Bacchus was thought to be the personification of our sensuous, uncontrolled animal natures (diametrically opposed to the god Apollo, symbol of Reason), so paintings of bacchanales could be explained as discourses on an eternal aspect of human nature and its struggle with the rational self.

In the painting, unclothed or partially-draped female bodies carry the eye across the front plane of this picture, from the three at the left to the complicated interwoven mass of bodies at right. In the centre of the work, though easily missed, is Bacchus himself, slumped on the ground, right arm flung back behind his head, caressed by a bacchante to his left. The darker skin colour of Bacchus marks him out from the female figures whose bodies are of a luminous ivory. Other bacchantes can be glimpsed far right, while above, hovering amongst trees, putti – infant messengers of the gods – fly. Apart from the sketchily-indicated trees and a shoreline in the background, there is no identifiable background: the drama of the work is confined to the figures which are as if superimposed upon the background, with little connection between the two; Etty’s method was to complete his figures before filling in the background and this is certainly the effect we have here. In the foreground, figures dominate – a little dog and a basket of fruit at left, and some drinking vessels bottom right are the only other details.

Etty has captured the sense of the bacchanale as dance by making the bodies writhe and turn, with silky swags of drapery adding to the effect. The overall tonality of the work is a warm reddish-brown. And while sharp outline plays a part – the figures at left being particularly clearly picked out against the background sky – the abiding effect is one typical of Etty, of a soft painterliness combined with warm colour. This quality is something that Etty borrowed very consciously from Venetian Renaissance artists like Titian and Veronese, whose work he greatly admired. Venetian artists had a reputation for using rich colour and tactile paint effects; Etty adopted the ‘Venetian’ style to enhance the sensuousness of his subject-matter.

However, while the theme of Etty’s work derives from ancient literature, and its style from the Venetian Renaissance, these are fundamentally Victorian ladies, acting a kind of masquerade. If we compare the nudes to those of Titian, we see how subtlely different they are: Titian’s female figures are more columnar, their waists broader and their breasts smaller and less pert. In Etty’s work, in the figures of the two standing figures at left, and the pivotal figure with arm upraised at right, we have instead jutting breasts, a pinched waist and swelling hips. This was the nineteenth-century ideal of female beauty, one emphasised by the corsets and voluminous skirts of the time. And if the bodies are not enough to remind us of nineteenth-century ideals, the centre-parted hairstyles, coquettish expressions and rosy cheeks of the women’s faces are entirely Victorian. Etty has taken a very traditional theme but revamped it for his contemporary public.

The buyers of Etty’s work were wealthy businessmen and industrialists. They, like the artist himself, had been profoundly influenced by seeing a wealth of Italian Renaissance art from the Orleans Collection – including a number of fine Titians – which appeared on the London art market in the early nineteenth century and which was exhibited in public before being sold on to private collectors. In the days before the establishment of London’s National Gallery, this London-based Orleans sale represented a rare chance to see great works from Europe and it created a mania for the Italian old masters. Essayist William Hazlitt summed up the mood with the recollection that ‘I was staggered when I saw the works…A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new Earth stood before me’.ii

Times were changing however, and by the late century a new generation of artists and collectors were pursuing a new aesthetic. Etty’s reputation suffered a major decline after his death. Paintings of the nude did not disappear but in the hands of artists such as George Frederick Watts and Edward Burne-Jones they were no longer the lusty, full-bodied figures that had made Etty famous. The slimmer, more languid bodies of the Symbolist movement had replaced the ‘Titianesque’ nude.

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