OIL PAINTING: Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm, 1830
Etty was the first British artist to paint the nude with both seriousness and consistency, combining visual pleasure with high moral purpose. However, while he was admired for emulating the glowing colours of the Venetians and Rubens, his distinct "unclassical" treatment of the nude was regarded as a deviation from the antique foundations of the English school as upheld by Flaxman and sculpture in general. "The naked female figure may, in the severity of the antique, be modest", declared the Morning Chronicle of this painting, "but it is not so in the attitude of Mr Etty ... no decent family can hang such sights against their walls". Youth and Pleasure belongs to the category of poetic romance. A youth cavorts with nymphs aboard a flimsy vessel, the prow of which seems to wilt from the heat of their sport. The intertwining limbs and languorously stretched bodies add to the theme of transient pleasure, an idea Etty pursued in another RA exhibit of 1832, Phaedria and Cymocles on the Idle Lake, a similar work in a number of features, and also expressive of women's sexual power over men. As with an earlier version, shown at the British Institution in 1822, Youth and Pleasure was exhibited untitled but accompanied with lines from Thomas Gray's ode The Bard of 1757. The quotation offered a more profound reading of the painting than the image presented of youthful dalliance. However, the moral warning contained in the text and implied in the picture by the storm clouds among which lurks a harbinger of doom, passed unnoticed, eliciting a more forthright explanation from Etty in an undated letter to the engraver C.W. Wass: "a general allegory on human life - its empty, vain pleasures - if not founded on the laws of Him who is the Rock of Ages'.