The York Gallery isn't just resorting to cliché when it subtitles its new show of the city's most notable painter, William Etty, as Art and Controversy.
He was controversial during his lifetime in the early and middle 19th century, and still is. It wasn't his subject matter. His ambition to be the country's grandest painter of historical subjects was well suited to contemporary taste. The art public wanted seriousness and he set out to supply it with his huge and smaller canvases of stories from classical literature and the Old Testament.
It was the nudes he filled his works with that so worried his contemporaries. He gloried in flesh, male as well as female, painting naked women of Rubenesque proportions with a relish that worried many onlookers. Was he out to tell the moral of his tales of decadence and divine retribution, as he claimed, or was it the outpourings of an obsessed and oversexed mind?
The moral part no longer worries us, of course. The idea that art ought to have an improving purpose, as the Victorians believed, has long since vanished in the squibs of Oscar Wilde and the revolution wrought by Manet. But the glorification of nubile flesh does still take you aback, as anyone visiting this show must notice. Not the presence of the nudes, it should be said. The naked body has been a major theme of art ever since the Renaissance and Etty, well versed in the work of the masters, set out to emulate them, above all the Venetian painters. It's the way Etty positions the nudes so they dominate the picture that disconcerts. That and the way he has them looking away from you. The models don't meet your gaze, or glance away from it, as they would in Renaissance or modern art. They look elsewhere, as if unaware of your presence, transforming you into a faintly shameful voyeur. It's the subject of one his most decried works, Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed. The voyeurism is there, too, in the diploma work he painted after gaining entry to the Royal Academy of 1828, Sleeping Nymph and Satyrs, (never shown in his life), in which one of the satyrs pulls the sheet from a wonderfully sensual nude, her cheeks rosy with desire.
Critics called this kind of thing "objectionable" and "offensive", accusing the artist of "debasing sensuality", while gallery viewers derided the figures (and still do) as "pulpy" and far too "voluptuous" for an English taste that preferred its nudes to be painted as if they were statues, with graceful form and not too much fleshiness about them. Etty's "bumboat" is what his friend John Constable called a particularly gruesome painting, Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm, in which naked women clamber in a pyramid to catch bubbles in a golden-prowed boat. Etty defended himself by saying, in a remark looking forward to the aesthetic philosophy, that he was trying to achieve art's "high abstract aims for their own high sake". And he argued that any lasciviousness reflected the eye of the beholder, not the painting or its author.
It gets even more problematic when you come to the studies he made of the nude. All his life Etty attended, often alongside Constable, the life classes at the Royal Academy. He was unusual in his time – although not by later standards – in the extent to which he took models from around him to draw and paint. Many of the studies, such as Male Nude Lying on a Shroud and Male Nude with Arms Up-stretched are frankly homoerotic. Etty never married, saying that children would interfere with his work. With a knowing nod, academics point to the fact that most of his male models were recruited from the baths he frequented and suggest: "We all know what that means."
But do we? It's a little too easy, in disparaging Victorian prudery and talking of them covering up table legs as too suggestive, to replace it with a modern sensibility on sex as equally simplistic. We don't truly know what Etty thought or did in his private life. But it is patently clear that he took himself very seriously as an artist, that he believed passionately in the art of the great masters of the past and wanted to emulate and repeat them for his own generation. And that is how he should be judged.
He was technically good enough to do it. A revealing room in this exhibition is given over to his copies of Titian, Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence. They are extremely skilled. But then that was his limitation. If Etty really was determined, as he declared, to bring back the nude and the grand historical themes to painting and if he had had the originality to carry it out in a form fully of his own, he might have gone down as a great innovator. Instead, even in his better paintings such as Destroying Angel and Daemons Inflicting Divine Vengeance on the Wicked and Intemperate, from 1830, in which he displays his moral seriousness as a retort to his critics, there is an imitation of the compositions and styles of the past that betray his limitations. The show, for logistical reasons, hasn't any of the vast historical canvases he painted but those, one fears, only reinforce his essential derivativeness on a more grandiose scale.
At times, among these smaller pictures, when he frees himself from narrative to portray simpler groupings, he can both surprise and impress. Venus and Cupid from 1828 has a lovely, and loving, rhythm to it while Sabrina and her Nymphs from 1841 could almost be a symbolist painting of two generations later. He was hopeless at portraying emotion, still worse at sentiment, but he was actually very good at people. In the final display, York has a selection of the portraits he painted of friends and contemporaries. He studied under Thomas Lawrence and the influence shows. But he had his own eye for the unpretentious. There is real life and warmth in the way that he uses lighting and colour in his portraits of local worthies such as James Atkinson and John Brook. A painting of the actress Mlle Rachel depicts her dramatic appeal perfectly, while a portrait of his brother, John Etty, from 1811 is a remarkable study of sibling assessment, suffused not so much with sympathy or even affection but with understanding.
"You're really missing something," says Sarah Burnage, the lively young curator who has nursed this exhibition over two years, "if you ignore what Etty meant in terms of his time, the revival of interest in the masters which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the central role of the Royal Academy and the importance of moral meaning in art." In the extensive quotes and documentation that she has produced to accompany this show, what comes through is the intensity of debate aroused by art during this period. We may laugh at the whole idea of painting with a moral purpose, but at least the 19th century thought it had an important role in public life and had something to contribute to it.
William Etty: Art and Controversy, York Art Gallery (01904 687687) to 22 January