William Etty was responsible for raising the status of the female nude in Victorian art. Even while training at the Royal Academy Schools, 'he took with avidity to the use of the brush and ever after painted his studies, thus he gained a power over the imitation of flesh, both as to colour and texture, beyond that of any other artist.' (Richard Redgrave's memoir, quoted in Lambourne, p.281) Since there was no precedent for this genre of painting in English art, Etty looked to Venetian art for inspiration, as well as the sensuous handling and voluptuous nudes of Rubens (1577-1640). His fluid brushstrokes and warm, rich colours also reflect the influence of Delacroix (1798-1863), who greatly admired Etty's work.
This picture was probably intended as a study for a larger painting on a mythological or historical subject. The pillar, the flowers in the background and the woman's pose - absorbed in her own thoughts, but reminiscent of Botticelli's (1446-1510) Birth of Venus, c.1485-6 - hint at some kind of narrative or classical allusion, but Etty is interested primarily in the model's torso and the vibrancy of her flesh, set against a rich red background. He also uses dramatic contrasts of light and dark to enliven what is essentially a conventional pose. Since details of extremities such as feet and hands were less important to him, Etty's nudes often have rather unusual proportions; with the result that, as here, the feet are merely sketched in and the head is in shadow. The model has large, muscular arms and enormous feet, and as some commentators have remarked, 'Etty never altogether converted the model into a complete work of poetry his Aphrodite remains a barmaid' (Gaunt and Roe, p.64).
Some critics regarded Etty's belief in the importance of colour over design as unwholesome and his works were frequently attacked for their indecency and lack of finish. The Times considered them 'entirely too luscious for the public eye' (quoted in Lambourne, p.281) and Thackeray warned of their intoxicating effect: 'Look for a while at Mr Etty's pictures, and away you rush, your "eyes on fire", drunken with the luscious colours that are poured out for you on the liberal canvas, and warm with the sight of the beautiful sirens that appear on it' (quoted in Lambourne p.282).
William Gaunt and F.Gordon Roe, Etty and the Nude, Leigh-on-Sea 1943, reproduced pl.41.
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.280-2.
Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude - Sexuality, Morality and Art, Manchester 1996, pp.86-90.