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William Etty’s Magdalens: Sexual Desire and Spirituality in Early Victorian England

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image of Religion and the Arts

William Etty (1787‐1849) is widely recognized as one of Britain’s pre-eminent painters of the nude. However, his reputation has suffered as a result of the moral disapproval that often greeted his work. Much of the academic discussion of his work has focused on attempting to rehabilitate him as a serious artist. In this essay I take a different approach by arguing that debate cannot be most usefully advanced by presenting as critical alternatives the notions that Etty’s work should be seen as either morally superior to, or as fatally implicated in, practices of pornographic viewing and production. By focusing on a series of his later works that illustrate his increasing interest in Catholic visual and material culture, notably those depicting the penitent Mary Magdalen, this essay argues that the religious and the erotic in his work should not be seen as incompatible phenomena. Rather, Etty should be regarded as an exponent of nineteenth-century attempts to create contexts of erotic desire that were also morally pure.

Affiliations: 1: University of London


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