The story of the two young lovers Hero and Leander is one enduring love. It has been a recurring subject in art and literature since classical times. The annual feast devoted to Venus, goddess of love, brought all the youth of the Asian town of Abydos- including Leander- to Venus’s temple in Sestos. Here Leander saw the perfectly beautiful priestess Hero: they fell in love. To conceal this from Hero’s parents and her female attendant Leander promised that, come what may, he would swim across the Hellespont from Abydos to Sestos ( in Europe) every night so they could make love; to guide him safely Hero would place a burning torch on the top of the tower where she lived. Leander would swim back home before sunrise. The distance across the water between the two towns was about one mile. Today it is called the Dardanelles and divides Asian and European Turkey.
The Roman poet Virgil (70BC-19BC) cites such love as an instance of how it is ‘lord of all’ for man and beast. Ovid (43BC-AD 17), another Roman poet, in his Heroides recounts the story of the love-lorn Hero and Leander when painfully separated by storms in an imagined single exchange of letters between them; the sentiments expressed in these works anticipate the later attachment of Romantic artists and writers to the legend. Many translations into English, poetical and literal, were published between the mid 17th and early 18th centuries; and in Etty’s time two great English poets responded to the subject, Lord Byron in 1810 by swimming across the Hellespont to recreate Leander’s nightly feat commemorated in his poem The Bride of Abydos and John Keats in 1816 with a sonnet On a Picture of Leander. The subject was also exhibited nine times in London art exhibitions between 1773 and 1827. One of these, Etty’s The Parting of Hero and Leander (Tate N05614; the same subject was shown by J M W Turner at the Royal Academy in 1837; Tate on loan from the National Gallery). Etty’s 1827 picture finds a sequel in this 1829 work- also shown at the Academy.
It seems most likely that an English verse translation by the Revd Francis Fawkes (1720-77) from a poem by 5th century AD Greek poet Musaeus Grammaticus, The Loves of Hero and Leander published in 1760 and re-printed in an 1810 poetry anthology, was Etty’s source for both his Hero and Leander paintings. One night, undaunted by a gathering storm and driven by rapturous desire, Leander sets off to meet Hero but is drowned. Symbolically, as the burning fire that signalled love, the flame of Hero’s torch was blown out in the gale. Seeing his body on the Sestian shore at daybreak the grief-struck Hero ‘... from the tower her beauteous body cast, | And on her lover’s bosom breath’d her last’. Fawkes’s last line, movingly captured by Etty, is ‘They liv’d united, and united died’ (Fawkes, p. 409).
Etty described this as the ‘finest of my fine pictures’ (Gilchrist II, p.278). His clarity on this is an affirmation of his sincere belief in producing a heartfelt moral art : that ‘the simple undisguised naked figure is innocent. “To the pure in heart all things are pure”’ (Autobiography in Art Journal, vol.11, February1849, p.40). His study from life of the male and female nude throughout his career conveyed (and still does) a mistaken idea (that it was meant to titillate) of the true purpose of his art. Etty was seen as one of the pre-eminent colourists of his time as well as a painterly painter. In 1828 he was elected a Royal Academician. The relatively thin, rapidly applied pigment obvious in some areas of Hero suggests that for the 1829 R. A. exhibition he used the three ‘varnishing days’ allowed to Academicians before an exhibition opened to the public in order to finish what had been up until then only a partly finished work. The picture was widely praised by the critics.
Francis Fawkes translated from the Greek of Musaeus, The Loves of Hero and Leander in
The Works of the English Poets, From Chaucer to Cowper ed. Alexander Chalmers, vol. 20, London 1810, pp.405-9.
Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Etty R.A., 2 vols, London 1855, vol. 1, p.266; vol. 2, p.278.
Dennis Farr, William Etty, London 1958, pp. 55-6, 145-6, reproduced pl.31.