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'The Judgement of Paris' c 1825-26, by William Etty (1787-1849)


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About the artwork

'The Judgement of Paris' is one of Etty's most ambitious compositions; it depicts an early scene from the ancient Greek poet Homer's epic tale of the Trojan Wars, The Iliad. The story goes that the Goddess of Discord was annoyed not to be invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and threw into the assembly of Gods at the ceremony a golden apple on which was inscribed 'to the fairest'. All the goddesses claimed the apple as theirs but three of them, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena wished to enter a competition to win the title of beauty. As a result the Gods appointed Paris, the son of Priamus from Troy to make the final decision. The painting shows the moment when, after listening to the Goddesses' promises, Paris decides to award the apple to Aphrodite.

'The Judgement of Paris' was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826 under the title 'The Choice of Paris'. It was accompanied by a quotation explaining the story told by Homer.

The picture is distinct for its fine colouring and reflects the influence of Venetian painters such as Titian and Veronese on Etty's work. It was commissioned by John, 4th Earl of Darnley who had admired Etty's painting, 'The Combat' at the Royal Academy Exhibition and wished to acquire a picture by Etty. They agreed on a price of £500, a considerable sum of money in those days.

In the painting, Paris seated under the tree is accompanied by Hermes, messenger of the Gods. Behind them one can see a Satyr, an inhabitant of forests and mountains in ancient Greek mythology. The three Goddess, Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, standing in front of Paris are distinguished by their emblems and accessories or their position in the composition: Athena drawn to herself is wearing a helmet, while in the centre Aphrodite's position is reminiscent of her representation in Renaissance paintings or even ancient Greek statues. Hera has her back turned to the viewer, her facial expression showing her anger at Paris' choice. The Goddesses' varied postures display Etty's skill in drawing the nude and his knowledge of human anatomy.

William Etty was the seventh child of a miller and baker in York. Although he showed an early talent for drawing his poor family circumstances prevented him from training as an artist, instead he was apprenticed as a printer. In 1805 with the financial support of his uncle in London, Etty was able to leave York. He entered the Royal Academy the following year and became a full time student in 1807 where his teacher Thomas Lawrence became a great influence.

With the death of his uncle in 1809, Etty received an inheritance. In 1811 one of his paintings was accepted at the Royal Academy Exhibition and from then on he was able to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy. Etty was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1824 and a year later became a Royal Academician. In that same year the landscape painter John Constable failed to be elected as an Royal Academician.

William Etty is now mostly known as the painter of daring nudes. Although attacked by some critics at the time, his choice of classical themes made nudity more acceptable because his paintings depict actions in the classical past rather than the puritanical present.

Etty travelled on several occasions to France and Italy. In Paris he studied in the Academie and entered the studio of Jean-Baptiste Regnault the fashionable academic painter and chief rival to Jacques-Louis David. In Italy and particularly in Venice, where he spent nine months Etty made copies of the work of the famous Renaissance Venetian painters, Titian and Veronese. He also visited Belgium and studied the work of Rubens.

During the 1830s and 1840s Etty concentrated on smaller works catering for a new clientele of industrialists, merchants and the nobility. He painted portraits throughout his career and in later years produced landscape paintings. Etty campaigned for the establishment of a School of Design in York in 1842 and advocated the preservation of the city's medieval walls and gateways.

The painting

In his 'The Judgement of Paris' Etty draws upon Homer's story from the The Iliad where Discord disrupts the wedding of Peleus and Thetis by throwing into the assembly of Gods a golden apple inscribed 'to the fairest'. Aphrodite, Hera and Athena each claimed the title, so the Gods appointed Paris, the son of Priamus from Troy, to judge the contest. The Goddesses all tried to influence Paris's decision by promising him special gifts: Hera (Juno) guaranteed to make him ruler of all Asia; Athena promised him wisdom and victory in all combats. Finally Aphrodite promised him the love of the most beautiful woman of the world, Helen of Sparta the wife of the King Menelaus. Paris's beauty, enhanced by Aphrodite charmed Helen when they met in Sparta and they fled to Troy together.

Homer's account in The Iliad goes on to describe how the Greeks and Trojans decided to settle the issue between Paris and King Menelaus by single combat, but Aphrodite saved Paris by surrounding him in a thick cloud.

Etty's 'The Judgement of Paris' depicts the moment when, after listening to each of the Goddesses' promises Paris decided to award the apple (and title of 'the fairest') to Aphrodite. Paris seated under the tree is accompanied by Hermes messenger of the Gods and behind them, a Satyr. The three Goddess standing in front of Paris are easily distinguished - Athena in a helmet, Aphrodite's stance is reminiscent of her representation in Renaissance paintings and Hera has her back to the viewer, but shows her anger at Paris' choice in her face.

Etty drew from a number of different sources for this work: the protagonists of the scene and their poses follow the composition of Raphael's 'Judgement of Paris'. For other details such as Athena's helmet and Hera's diadem and straightened right arm, he has drawn from Flaxman's engraving 'Judgement of Paris', one of his illustrations to Homer's Iliad, which Etty probably owned. Rubens also painted 'The Judgement of Paris' (this painting is in the National Gallery in London).

Looking carefully at Etty's painting one notices that despite the brilliant colours and the sensuousness of the nude bodies, the surroundings are incomplete; neither the group of nymphs on the right hand side of the painting, nor the foliage of the trees appear resolved. Lord Darnley continuously asked for changes and the canvas looks as if it was worked on bit by bit. In some areas one can discern changes - Aphrodite's raised arm and the drapery over Athena's shoulder. However the picture was well received when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826 and this may have convinced Etty that he did not need to do any more work on it.

Lord Darnley was not convinced; he only paid a part of the agreed price and only later, in 1831 did he agree to take the work and finally pay the balance. Its sale in 1843 to a private collector for a large sum brought the work back to prominence and may have led to Etty receiving a second commission, this time from Joseph Gillot for the same subject. Lord Leverhulme bought 'The Judgement of Paris' from a private collector in 1911.