The Dawn of Love (painting)

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The Dawn of Love, 1828, 88.8 by 96 cm (35.0 by 37.8 in) Etty - The Dawn of Love.jpg
The Dawn of Love, 1828, 88.8 by 96 cm (35.0 by 37.8 in)

The Dawn of Love, also known as Venus Now Wakes, and Wakens Love, is an oil painting on canvas by English artist William Etty, first exhibited in 1828 and currently in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth. Loosely based on a passage from John Milton's 1634 masque Comus , it shows a nude Venus leaning across to wake the sleeping Love by stroking his wings. While Etty often included nude figures in his work, he rarely depicted physical intimacy, and owing to this, The Dawn of Love is one of his more unusual paintings. The open sensuality of the work was intended to present a challenge to the viewer mirroring the plot of Comus, in which the heroine is tempted by desire but remains rational and detached.

Oil painting process of painting with pigments that are bound with a medium of drying oil

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder. Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the oil paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints. An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium. The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss.

William Etty British painter (1787 – 1849)

William Etty was an English artist best known for his history paintings containing nude figures. He was the first significant British painter of nudes and still lifes. Born in York, he left school at the age of 12 to become an apprentice printer in Hull. He completed his apprenticeship seven years later and moved to London, where in 1807 he joined the Royal Academy Schools. There he studied under Thomas Lawrence and trained by copying works by other artists. Etty earned respect at the Royal Academy of Arts for his ability to paint realistic flesh tones, but had little commercial or critical success in his first few years in London.

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum art museum in Bournemouth, United Kingdom

The Russell-Cotes Museum is an art gallery and museum in Bournemouth, England. A Grade II* listed building originally known as East Cliff Hall, it is located on the top of the East Cliff, next to the Royal Bath Hotel.


While a few critics praised elements of its composition and execution, The Dawn of Love was very poorly received when first exhibited. Etty had developed a reputation for painting realistic figures, and his stylised Venus was thought unduly influenced by foreign artists such as Rubens as well as being overly voluptuous and unrealistically coloured, while the painting as a whole was considered tasteless and obscene. The Dawn of Love was not among the 133 paintings exhibited in the major 1849 retrospective exhibition of Etty's works, and its exhibition in Glasgow in 1899 drew complaints for its supposed obscenity. In 1889 it was bought by Sir Merton Russell-Cotes, and has remained in the collection of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum ever since.

Merton Russell-Cotes British politician

Sir Merton Russell-Cotes was Mayor of Bournemouth, England, 1894–95. During his Mayoralty, Meyrick Park, two free libraries, and the first two schools of art in the borough were opened.


Pandora Crowned by the Seasons (1824). Following the success of Cleopatra, Etty tried to replicate its success with further history paintings containing nude figures. William Etty - Pandora Crowned by the Seasons, 1824.jpg
Pandora Crowned by the Seasons (1824). Following the success of Cleopatra, Etty tried to replicate its success with further history paintings containing nude figures.

William Etty was born in 1787, the son of a York baker and miller. [1] He began as an apprentice printer in Hull. [2] On completing his seven-year apprenticeship he moved at the age of 18 to London "with a few pieces of chalk crayons", [3] with the intention of becoming a history painter in the tradition of the Old Masters. [4] He enrolled at the Royal Academy, and after a year spent studying under renowned portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, [5] Etty returned to the Royal Academy, drawing at the life class and copying other paintings. [5] [6] A follower of John Opie, who promoted the unfashionable painting style of Titian and Rubens over the then-prevalent formal style of Joshua Reynolds, [7] Etty was unsuccessful in all the Academy's competitions and every work he submitted to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in the 1810s was rejected. [5] In 1821 the Royal Academy accepted and exhibited one of Etty's works in the Summer Exhibition, The Arrival of Cleopatra in Cilicia (also known as The Triumph of Cleopatra). [8] This painting was extremely well received, and many of Etty's fellow artists greatly admired him. [9] He became well respected for his ability to capture flesh tones accurately in painting, and for his fascination with contrasts in skin tones. [10] Following the exhibition of Cleopatra, over the next decade Etty tried to replicate its success by painting nude figures in biblical, literary and mythological settings. [11]

York Historic city in the north of England

York is a historic walled city in North Yorkshire, England. At the confluence of the River Ouse and Foss, it is the traditional county town of the historic county of Yorkshire. York Minster and a variety of cultural and sporting activities make it a popular tourist destination.

Kingston upon Hull City and Unitary authority in England

Kingston upon Hull, usually abbreviated to Hull, is a port city and unitary authority in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. It lies upon the River Hull at its confluence with the Humber Estuary, 25 miles (40 km) inland from the North Sea, with a population of 260,700 (mid-2017 est.). Hull is 154 miles (248 km) north of London, 50 miles (80 km) east of Leeds, 34 miles (55 km) east southeast of York and 67 miles (108 km) northeast of Sheffield.

History painting genre in painting defined by historical matter

History painting is a genre in painting defined by its subject matter rather than artistic style. History paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story, rather than a specific and static subject, as in a portrait. The term is derived from the wider senses of the word historia in Latin and Italian, meaning "story" or "narrative", and essentially means "story painting". Most history paintings are not of scenes from history, especially paintings from before about 1850.

While some nudes by foreign artists were held in private English collections, the country had no tradition of nude painting and the display and distribution of nude material to the public had been suppressed since the 1787 Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice. [12] Etty was the first British artist to specialise in the nude, and the reaction of the lower classes to these paintings caused concern throughout the 19th century. [13] Many critics condemned his repeated depictions of female nudity as indecent, although his portraits of male nudes were generally well received. [14] [upper-alpha 1]


And on the tawny sands and shelves
Trip the pert fairies and the dapper elves
By dimpled brook and fountain-brim
The wood-nymphs, decked with daisies trim
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep;
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come, let us our rites begin;
'Tis only day-light that makes sin
Which these dun shades will ne'er report.
Hail! Goddess of nocturnal sport.

Comus , lines 117–28

The Dawn of Love illustrates an early passage from Comus , a 1634 masque by John Milton. Comus is a morality tale in which the female protagonist, referred to only as "The Lady", becomes separated from her family. She encounters the debauched magician Comus who captures and imprisons her, and uses all the means at his disposal to try to inflame her sexual desires. The Lady resists all temptation, and using her reason and sense of morals resists Comus's efforts to draw her into intemperance or surrender to desire. [16]

Masque courtly entertainment with music and dance

The masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment that flourished in 16th- and early 17th-century Europe, though it was developed earlier in Italy, in forms including the intermedio. A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron. Professional actors and musicians were hired for the speaking and singing parts. Often the masquers, who did not speak or sing, were courtiers: the English queen Anne of Denmark frequently danced with her ladies in masques between 1603 and 1611, and Henry VIII and Charles I of England performed in the masques at their courts. In the tradition of masque, Louis XIV of France danced in ballets at Versailles with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

John Milton 17th-century English poet and civil servant

John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, man of letters, and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), written in blank verse.

Comus in Greek mythology, the god of festivity and son of Bacchus

In Greek mythology, Comus is the god of festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliances. He is a son and a cup-bearer of the god Dionysus. Comus represents anarchy and chaos. His mythology occurs in the later times of antiquity. During his festivals in Ancient Greece, men and women exchanged clothes. He was depicted as a young man on the point of unconsciousness from drink. He had a wreath of flowers on his head and carried a torch that was in the process of being dropped. Unlike the purely carnal Pan or purely intoxicated Dionysos, Comus was a god of excess.

Etty's painting is not a direct illustration of a scene from Comus. Instead, it is inspired by an early passage in which Comus, prior to his meeting with The Lady, muses on the notion that sin is only problematic if others become aware of it, and thus that it is right and natural to surrender to base desires while under cover of darkness, arguing that "What hath night to do with sleep? Night hath better sweets to prove, Venus now wakes, and wakens Love". [16] Etty's painting shows the nude Venus, as "Goddess of nocturnal sport", reaching across to wake the sleeping Love by stroking his wings. [16] [17] While Etty had built his reputation on his renowned ability to paint realistic human figures, Venus in The Dawn of Love is highly stylised, and painted in a deliberate pastiche of the style of Rubens. [16]

Venus (mythology) Ancient Roman goddess of love, sex, and fertility

Venus is a Roman goddess, whose functions encompassed love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory. In Roman mythology, she was the mother of the Roman people through her son, Aeneas, who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. Julius Caesar claimed her as his ancestor. Venus was central to many religious festivals, and was revered in Roman religion under numerous cult titles.

The Dawn of Love intentionally presents a moral dilemma to viewers. By his open depiction of nudity and sensuality, Etty makes the same argument as that presented by Comus, that it is rational for the viewer to succumb to their lustful thoughts while in private. The picture presents the same moral challenge to the viewer as that which Comus presents to The Lady, that of remaining true to her better, moral and rational, nature, despite there being no apparent disadvantage in surrendering to desire. [16]

While Etty regularly painted nudity, he rarely depicted physical intimacy other than in combat, and The Dawn of Love is unusual among his works; Etty's biographer Leonard Robinson commented in 2007 that The Dawn of Love "is a subject so untypical of Etty that one finds difficulty in understanding why he painted it". [18]


Etty's The World Before the Flood , exhibited later in 1828, also illustrated Milton, in this case Paradise Lost . Etty - The World Before the Flood (Southampton).jpg
Etty's The World Before the Flood , exhibited later in 1828, also illustrated Milton, in this case Paradise Lost .

Etty exhibited the painting in February 1828 at the British Institution under the title of Venus Now Wakes, and Wakens Love. [16] [20] It immediately met with a storm of derision from critics for the style in which Venus was painted; [16] one of the few positive reviews was that of The New Monthly Magazine , whose critic considered "the figure of Venus is delightfully drawn and most voluptuously coloured; and the way in which she awakens love, by ruffling the feathers of his wings, is exquisitely imagined and executed". [17] The Times commented that "the drawing is free and flowing" and "the colouring, though rich, is perfectly natural", but felt that "the subject is, however, handled in a way entirely too luscious (we might, with great propriety, use a harsher term) for the public eye". [21] The Literary Gazette conceded that the painting was "very attractive, especially in colour", but considered the painting's "voluptuousness" as "one of the most unpardonable sins against taste", and chided Etty's "careless" drawing, observing that "it is impossible that an artist who has for so many years, and so unremittingly, studied the living model, can err in that respect from want of knowledge". [22] The Monthly Magazine complained of Venus's "sullen colour and corpulent shape", as well as Etty's "excessive exposure of [Venus's] figure". [23] La Belle Assemblée , meanwhile, felt that Etty's representation of Venus "though a fine voluptuous woman, is not, either in supremacy of beauty, or according to any received description of the love-inspiring goddess, a Venus", and complained that "the colouring of the flesh is chalky". [24]

The harshest criticism came from an anonymous reviewer in The London Magazine :

This small picture ... we utterly condemn, not for the nudity or indecency of which some have complained, but because there is a total want of beauty, grace, and expression, to clothe the nakedness and abstract the mind from it. Mr. Etty seems conscious of the coldness of his flesh-colour, and atones for it by the flabbiness of his figures. They are any thing but voluptuous or alluring. We would recommend to our artist to leave these small unfinished vignettes, these little doughy Rubenses as "toys of desperation" to others. His firm, broad, manly pencil, requires wider scope and a different subject.

The London Magazine, April 1828 [25]

An anonymous reviewer in the same publication later that year returned to the theme, chiding Etty for his imitation of foreign artists rather than attempting to develop a new and unique style of his own, observing that "we cannot imitate the voice or the actions of another, without exaggerating or caricaturing them", complaining that there is "[no] propriety in seeing the Venuses of Titian, the fables of heathenism, or the base occupations of Dutch boors, placed in parallel with those subjects which form the basis [of] all our future hopes", and observing that "surely, Rubens ought here [in England] to be held up as rock to avoid, not a light to follow". [26]


Musidora: The Bather 'At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed' (exh. 1846). Etty continued to paint nudes throughout his career, but rarely again depicted physical intimacy. Etty - Musidora- The Bather 'At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed'.jpg
Musidora: The Bather 'At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed' (exh. 1846). Etty continued to paint nudes throughout his career, but rarely again depicted physical intimacy.

In February 1828, shortly after the exhibition of The Dawn of Love, Etty defeated John Constable by 18 votes to five to become a full Royal Academician, [27] at the time the highest honour available to an artist. [28] [upper-alpha 2] From 1832 onwards, needled by repeated attacks from the press on his supposed indecency and tastelessness, Etty continued to be a prominent painter of nudes but began to make conscious efforts to reflect moral teachings in his work. [29] He died in 1849, [30] working and exhibiting up until his death [31] and remained well-regarded as an artist despite being judged by many as a pornographer. Charles Robert Leslie observed shortly after Etty's death that "[Etty] himself, thinking and meaning no evil, was not aware of the manner in which his works were regarded by grosser minds". [32] Interest in his work declined as new movements came to characterise painting in Britain, and by the end of the 19th century the cost of all his paintings had fallen below their original prices. [30]

The Dawn of Love (under its original title of Venus Now Wakes, and Wakens Love) was exhibited in 1829 at the Birmingham Society of Arts, but other than that its history during Etty's lifetime is not recorded. No record of its original sale exists, and it was not among the 133 paintings included in the major retrospective exhibition of Etty's works at the Royal Society of Arts in 1849. [33] It is known that in 1835 it was in the collection of textile entrepreneur Joseph Strutt, but it was not among the paintings sold on his death in 1844. [33] In June 1889 it was bought from an unknown buyer for an unknown sum by Sir Merton Russell-Cotes, [33] and has remained in the collection of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth ever since. [34] It was shown at an 1899 exhibition of works from Russell-Cotes's collection at the Glasgow Corporation Gallery. [34] This exhibition caused some controversy owing to its supposed obscene nature; in 1894 a number of supposedly obscene prints of works by major artists had been removed from a Glasgow shop by police and magistrates, and it was felt inappropriate for a publicly funded educational body to be displaying a work of equal obscenity. [35] Several luminaries of the art world such as Frederic Leighton intervened, and the exhibition went ahead. [36] The Dawn of Love was also exhibited at a 1955 Arts Council exhibition, [33] and was one of the works exhibited in a major retrospective of Etty's works at the York Art Gallery in 2011–12. [37]


  1. Etty's male nude portraits were primarily of mythological heroes and classical combat, genres in which the depiction of male nudity was considered acceptable in England. [15]
  2. In Etty's time, honours such as knighthoods were only bestowed on presidents of major institutions, not on even the most well respected artists. [28]

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  2. Gilchrist 1855, p. 23.
  3. Burnage 2011a, p. 157.
  4. Smith 1996, p. 86.
  5. 1 2 3 Farr 1958, p. 15.
  6. Green 2011, p. 61.
  7. Farr 1958, p. 12.
  8. Burnage 2011d, p. 31.
  9. Burnage 2011b, p. 118.
  10. Burnage 2011c, p. 198.
  11. "About the artist". Manchester Art Gallery. Archived from the original on 11 February 2015. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  12. Smith 2001b, p. 53.
  13. Smith 2001b, p. 55.
  14. Smith 2001a, p. 54.
  15. Burnage 2011d, pp. 32–33.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Burnage 2011b, p. 116.
  17. 1 2 "Fine Arts". III. London: Henry Colburn. 1 April 1828: 157.
  18. Robinson 2007, p. 259.
  19. Burnage 2011b, p. 113.
  20. Burnage & Bertram 2011, p. 23.
  21. "British Institution". The Times (13506). London. 4 February 1828. col A, p. 3.
  22. "Fine Arts: British Institution". The Literary Gazette. London (577): 90. 9 February 1828.
  23. "Fine Arts Exhibitions". The Monthly Magazine. London.
  24. "Fine Arts Exhibitions, &c: British Institution". La Belle Assemblée. London. 7 (39): 133. March 1828.
  25. "Notes on Art". The London Magazine. London. I (1): 27. April 1828.
  26. "The British Institution". The London Magazine. London. I (2): 395. July 1828.
  27. Farr 1958, p. 52.
  28. 1 2 Robinson 2007, p. 135.
  29. Burnage 2011d, p. 42.
  30. 1 2 Robinson 2007, p. 440.
  31. Burnage 2011e, p. 243.
  32. Leslie, Charles Robert (30 March 1850). "Lecture on the Works of the late W. Etty, Esq, R.A., by Professor Leslie". The Athenæum. London (1170): 352.
  33. 1 2 3 4 Farr 1958, p. 157.
  34. 1 2 Smith 2001b, p. 56.
  35. Smith 2001b, p. 57.
  36. Smith 2001b, p. 58.
  37. Burnage 2011b, p. 117.