Prometheus card

Prometheus

LL 3590

On display

Information

This oil painting is by the successful Victorian artist, William Etty. The title of the painting suggests that the naked male shown tied to a rock is the mythical figure Prometheus, known best as the protector of mankind. However, it has been pointed out that according to tradition Prometheus was not shot by an arrow. His punishment by the Greek god Zeus instead involved his liver being pecked out by an eagle. It is likely therefore that Etty chose to include the arrow to heighten the erotic drama of the composition. The splayed out limbs, the pierced muscular flesh and the taut rope around Prometheus’ ankle create a charged homoerotic atmosphere that draws on sadomasochistic imagery and the tension between pleasure and pain. It is thought that the work originated from a sketch produced during one of the life-drawing classes at the Royal Academy that Etty regularly attended. Etty was the only major British painter prior to the Twentieth century to have devoted his entire career to painting male and female nudes. Etty also recruited his own life models for his paintings, and is known to have frequented all-male bathhouses to find men with the appropriate muscular physique for his works. Etty’s female nudes were the subject of much controversy during his lifetime. His work was sometimes viewed as a form of elite pornography; too sensual, rich and provocative for puritan Victorian tastes. However, his male nudes went almost without comment. Etty was a life-long bachelor and as such attracted frequent speculation about his own sexual tastes during his own lifetime, with accusations ranging from impotence to unsavoury perversions. More recent scholarship has focused on the eroticism of his male nudes, and his regular trips to the bathhouse, to suggest that he may have been secretly homosexual. A long-standing tradition exists that Etty did not finish the work and the background was painted by John Linnell (1792-1882). However, there is no conclusive proof that this is true.