OIL PAINTING: Candaules, King of Lydia Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, 1830
With this cynical subject of voyeurism and vengeance Etty was testing the limits of what could be accepted as high art, which may explain why he opted to represent the scene on a modest scale. The painting depicts an episode recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus in which the Lydian king Candaules arranges for his general Gyges secretly to view his wife Nyssia as she disrobes. Furious at her husband's impudence and betrayal, the queen presents Gyges with the option of either execution or murdering the king, a dilemma which drives him to slay Candaules and marry Nyssia.
The pose of Nyssia probably originated as a life-study, with the rest of the subject developed at a later stage. In positioning the principal figure to be viewed from behind, Etty makes the spectator complicit in Candaules' plot, our view completing the circumspection of the queen. The picture entered the collection of Robert Vernon but when it became public property following his gift to the nation in 1847, it was regarded as something of an embarrassment to the national school. S.C. Hall, editor of the Art Journal, refused to have it engraved there, and even Alexander Gilchrist, a staunch defender of Etty and the nude, singled it out as "almost the only instance among Etty's works, of an undeniably disagreeable, not to say objectionable subject having been chosen as the theme for interpreting nude form, and the development of harmonious colour". In short, opinion was unanimous that Etty's picture was acceptable, if at all, only for private viewing.
The spatial complexity of the composition achieved through the rather illogical deployment of drapes, columns and screens, accentuates the violence and claustrophobia of the image. The vertical line which runs downward from the queen's raised left arm, through her drapery to her knee, abruptly cuts off the body of Candaules at the thigh, visually reinforcing the presiding theme of female power and emasculation.