William Etty (1787-1849), Hero, Having Thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body, 1828, oil on canvas, 75 x 92.5 cm, Tate.
I imagine being friends with Leander could be trying, forever making you look bad. After falling in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, who lives on the other side of the Hellespont strait, Leander promises to swim the bay every night to be with her. To guide him there she lights a lamp at the top of her tower. A routine that lasted one warm summer, it ends tragically on a blustery winter night when Hero’s light is blown out. Leander, losing his bearings, tossed around in the waves, drowns. Seeing her lover’s body washed up onto the shore, Hero jumps from her tower to join him in death.
Leander and Hero may make us non-mythical men and women look deadening and dull in comparison, but as Valentine says to Proteus in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona: ‘Tis true; for you are over boots in love, And yet you never swum the Hellespont.’ The story of Hero and Leander goes to show that, for many, love is all, even if we don’t go to such lengths. I, however, travelled the Edinburgh to King’s Cross line to be with my girlfriend for roughly a year.
Famous for his paintings of nudes, William Etty was one of Britain’s most controversial artists of the nineteenth-century. Admired by Eugene Delacroix and other Romantic painters of the era, Etty’s dedication to the nude has perpetuated a mistaken belief that his art aimed to titillate. Constable famously labelled him a dauber of ‘bumboats’ (maybe he had a point), but for me, if we look beyond the conveniently placed draperies (show me one that isn’t) Etty is concerned with capturing heartfelt, sincere emotions. Although unashamedly over the top, Etty was unquestionably a great figurative artist; and as the two lovers’ lives in this painting drift away, their glowing skin set off against a sombre sky, you’d have to be quite hard-hearted not to be moved.
As an aside, Valerie Solanas, American feminist and author of the SCUM manifesto who famously shot Andy Warhol, wrote on the topic of men: ‘eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.’ I imagine Solanas would have hated Leander, but maybe if given half the chance, he’d have proven her right. TA
For more on William Etty, our book William Etty: Art & Controversy is the first major study of his work in over fifty years, and reassesses his use of the nude, his training at the Royal Academy and his large scale historical canvases.