The Dawn of Love (painting)

Naked woman sitting beside a sleeping man
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.

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.

Background

Standing naked woman, surrounded by naked people, being crowned by four scantily dressed figures
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]

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][A]