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The Judgement of Paris, by William Etty


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About the artwork

Originally exhibited under the title 'The Choice of Paris' at the 1826 Royal Academy, the following explanation appeared in the catalogue:

The Goddess of Discord, incensed at not being invited to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, threw into the assembly of the Gods who were at the entertainment, a golden apple, on which was inscribed ‘To the fairest’. All the Goddesses claimed it as their own but at last only three, Juno, Venus and Minerva, wished to dispute their respective right to beauty, and the Gods, unwilling to become arbiters in an affair an affair so delicate, appointed Paris, a Phrygian shepherd, son of Priam, to adjudge the prize. Each tried by promises and entreaties to gain the attentions of Paris, and influence his judgement. After he had heard their several claims and promises, Paris adjudged the prize to Venus and gave her the apple.

It was the first beauty contest, but without swimwear. There was also a quite unacceptable degree of bribery from the contestants. In exchange for awarding Venus the prize, Paris was promised the love of Helen, wife of Menelaus and their elopement brought on the Trojan War. But that is another story...

A smattering of nubile nymphs

There was no English artist of the early 19th Century more temperamentally suited than William Etty to painting a subject calling for not one, not two, but three beautiful nude women - with a smattering of nubile nymphs thrown into the background for good measure. Etty can be said to have devoted his life to painting the female nude. He rationalised his inclination as follows:

‘When I found that all the great painters of Antiquity had become thus great through painting Great Actions, and the Human Form, I resolved to paint nothing else. And finding God’s most glorious work to be WOMAN, that all human beauty had been concentrated in her, I resolved to dedicate myself to painting – not the Draper’s or the Milliner’s work - but God’s most glorious work, more finely than ever had been done.’

Born in York in 1787, the son of a Methodist miller and baker, Etty began his working life as a printer’s apprentice in Hull. Recognising an early facility for draughtsmanship, a supportive uncle paid for him to train as an artist in London. In 1807 he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, at that date in Somerset House.

The Life Room, or Model Academy was a lofty windowless chamber lit by a large chandelier of oil lamps suspended from the ceiling. A conical flue drew off the fumes, while a curved screen suspended behind, focused the light – and hopefully some of the warmth – on the naked model. The students sat in tiers of benches to draw ‘from the Life’.

It was here that Etty claimed to have spent many of the happiest hours of his life. When he was elected a Royal Academician in 1828, he was advised that it would not be in keeping with his new status for him to continue rubbing shoulders with the students in the Life Room. ‘If my continuing to paint in the Life-School is considered derogatory to an Academician’, he replied, ‘let them not make me one: for I shall not give it up.’ When the Royal Academy moved in 1837 to the National Gallery’s building in Trafalgar Square, the Life Room was situated below the dome and became known by students as ‘the pepper pot’.

For the last 12 years of his life, every evening, Etty would toil up a spiral staircase leading to the circular chamber to draw and paint from the nude model with men forty years younger than himself. A life-long bachelor, he said ‘it fills up a couple of hours in the evening, I should be at a loss how else to employ’.

Painting to order

'The Judgement of Paris' was commissioned by the 4th Earl of Darnley in 1825 for £500. It was one of the few occasions in Etty’s career that he found himself having to paint to order. Lord Darnley is said to have demanded changes as the work progressed and there are areas of the composition which show alterations to have been made. It was probably finished in a hurry in time for the sending-in date of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition but was well received by the critics nonetheless. The Examiner was particularly effusive:

Our ambitious painter has conquered nearly all with his masculine powers, for it not only provokes comparison with some fine old pictures – having been a favourite and frequent subject – but its large masses of flesh-colour and many naked figures demand great knowledge of the human form and its various tintings and character.

There is an inscription in Greek above the door to the so-called ‘Great Room’, the largest exhibition space at Somerset House. It roughly translates: ‘Let no stranger to the Muses enter.’ Referring to this, the critic of The Examiner concluded his review:

Where the muses to pass through the exhibition to see what Artists they have inspired, they would stop to admire this picture.

Lord Darnley, however was not satisfied and seemed willing neither to pay Etty the agreed price, nor to take possession of the picture. Over the next three years, the artist, by repeated demands, had managed to extract £400. In 1831 His Lordship agreed to take the picture but later that year he died, leaving £100 still to pay. The tenacious Etty then pestered the dead man’s son and heir and eventually, in 1834, eight years after painting the picture, agreed to end the sordid wrangle with a final settlement of £75.