In 1805, with the support of family, Etty made his way to London, where he enrolled in the Royal Academy schools and was also apprenticed to Thomas Lawrence for a year. From 1811 he was a regular contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions, and was elected an associate in 1824 and an academician in 1828. A history painter with a special interest in the female nude, Etty also painted portraits, and, in the 1840s, landscapes. He lived to see a monographic exhibition of his work held at London's Society of Arts in 1849.
This oil sketch is a study for the Three Graces in Etty’s painting Venus and Her Satellites (Museo de Arte de Ponce, Fundación Luis A. Ferré), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 and which the artist regarded as one of his principal works. Venus is dressed by three young women and accompanied as well by the Graces, one of whom offers strings of pearls and another a wreath of flowers. The sensuous nude bodies set off by brightly colored draperies in the final painting gave offense, and the picture, when first exhibited, was criticized as too erotic. Roger Fry bought the sketch for the Metropolitan Museum in December 1905, shortly before he became curator of paintings, describing it as "unfinished but superb" (telegram in departmental files). Whether Etty would have called it "unfinished" is open to question. It is probably as he intended that it should remain, and this is fortunate, in that many of Etty’s figure studies were completed after his death by others, who added landscape backgrounds or draperies to make them more salable. As well as sketching nudes at the Royal Academy, Etty employed models to pose in his studio, which seems likely to have been the case here, as the grouping appears to have been carefully arranged and the motif was carried over quite precisely.
A thinly painted version of the Ponce picture, possibly a studio copy, is in the York Art Gallery. Another oil sketch, of the same size as the one in York and also on panel, was sold at Sotheby's, London, February 22, 1989, no. 47. Farr (1958) mentions a watercolor copy inscribed "W.E.".
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
G. T. Andrews, York (by 1849–51; his anonymous sale, Christie's, London, June 23, 1849, no. 76, as "Study for the Graces, in a picture of 'Venus attiring'", for £89.5.0, bought in; his sale, Christie's, London, May 31, 1851, no. 80, as "The Graces", for £210 to Hatch); Thomas Mackenzie, Dailuaine House, Carron, Strathspey (until 1902; sale, Christie's, London, May 10, 1902, no. 110, as "Study for 'The Three Graces'", for £39.18.0 to Smith); [Henry Ellis Heyman, London, until 1905; sold to MMA]
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "Portraits, Figures and Landscapes," January 12–February 4, 1951, no. 17.
Providence. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. "Paintings by William Etty," November 28, 1956–January 2, 1957, no catalogue.
Little Rock. Arkansas Arts Center. "Five Centuries of European Painting," May 16–October 26, 1963, unnumbered cat.
Royal Cortissoz. "At the Museum. A Survey of the Conditions under the New Regime." New York Daily Tribune (April 22, 1906), questions the wisdom of Roger Fry's purchase of this picture.
C[harles]. J[ohn]. Holmes. "Three New Pictures for the Metropolitan Museum of New York." Burlington Magazine 8 (February 1906), pp. 350–51, pl. II, calls it a "brilliant study," possibly for Ulysses and the Sirens in the City Art Gallery, Manchester.
[Roger Fry?]. "Principal Accessions: January 20 to February 20, 1906." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1 (February 1906), p. 65, praises "Etty's characteristic brilliance of handling and fine feeling for the quality of paint".
P[ercy]. M[oore]. Turner. "Pictures of the English School in New York." Burlington Magazine 22 (February 1913), p. 275, admires the "happy grouping" and calls it "one of the most desirable examples a museum could hope to secure".
Connoisseur 78 (May 1927), ill. p. 53.
C. H. Collins Baker. British Painting. London, 1933, p. 278.
Dennis Farr. Paintings by William Etty. Exh. cat.London, 1955, p. 21, identifies it as a study for "Venus and her Satellites (The Toilet of Venus)", mentioning versions exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 (Museo de Arte de Ponce) and at the York Art Gallery.
Dennis Farr. William Etty. London, 1958, pp. 74, 154, 156, 206, no. 100a, pl. 57b, calls it a "very fine study".
Julius S. Held. Catalogue 1: Paintings of the European and American Schools. Ponce, 1965, p. 62.
Frederick Cummings and Allen Staley. Romantic Art in Britain: Paintings and Drawings 1760–1860. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. Philadelphia, 1968, p. 231.
Denys Sutton, ed. Letters of Roger Fry. New York, 1972, vol. 1, pp. 25–26, finds it rather surprising that Fry recommended paintings by Etty and G. F. Watts.
Julius S. Held. Catalogue 1: Paintings of the European and American Schools. Ponce, 1984, p. 108.
Alex Kidson. Earlier British Paintings in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. [Liverpool], 1999, p. 69.
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 254–55, no. 122, ill. (color).
Heather Birchall et al. Museo de Arte de Ponce Collection Catalogue. Vol. 1, The British Collection. Ponce, 2012, p. 72 n. 1.