William Etty was born in March 1787, in the city of York, England. He left school at age 12, in order to become an apprentice printer in the city of Hull.
Upon the completion of his seven-year apprenticeship, Etty moved to London, where he would enroll at the Royal Academy Schools. There he studied by copying works made by other artists and his teacher was the renowned painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. Despite a low critical and commercial success in his early years in London, Etty was respected in the Royal Academy for his keen ability to reproduce realistic flesh tones.
His Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia, executed in 1821, featured several nudes and received with great acclaim. However, fearing a moralizing criticism on the way he portrayed his female nudes, Etty was instructed to paint clothes above some of them.
Its success moved Etty to develop several further representations of historical scenes containing nudes. One of said paintings proved to be quite controversial; A Sketch from One of Gray’s Odes, executed in January 1822, drew a lot of criticism for the way the artist represented females nudes, considered to way too lustful. The distinguished English publication The Times would state this: “Naked figures, when painted with the purity of Raphael, may be endured: but nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and on Mr. Etty's canvass is mere dirty flesh."
Despite this, he was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. In 1828, he was elected a Royal Academician, which was a great honor to an artist at the time. Etty was an avid learner, for he continued to attend life classes throughout his life, a practice not approved by his fellow artists and considered inappropriate.
In his mid-30s, William Etty left to travel throughout Europe, looking for a chance to study artworks by the Masters he admired. The artist traveled through France, Switzerland, arriving in Italy, a country in which Etty explored more thoroughly. In Italy, the artist went to Florence, Rome, and Naples, where he met English actor William Mcready, their frindship endured until their death.
Soon, the artist went to Venice, planning on staying for only 10 days before going back to England. However, Etty became so impressed with the city he spent around seven months. In Venice, Etty attended classes at the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts and produced around 50 oil paintings, as well as several sketches.
Etty would branch out into portraiture, a less respected although more lucrative field. He would later become the first English painter to execute significant still lifes. Despite the shift in fields, he continued to paint both female and male nudes, which caused severe backlash and condemnation from some elements of the society and the press.
William Etty was an extremely shy man, he rarely socialized and never married, he lived until his death with Elizabeth Etty, his niece.
William Etty died on November 13, 1849, in the city of York, England.