Painting of the month for January 2015

The Deluge

1835-45. Oil on canvas Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This month’s Painting of the Month has been chosen and written by Susie Kimnell


I’m no expert on art. But I love a painting. The Deluge, painted by William Etty. I know nothing about him as a painter or in fact a human being, yet his handiwork hangs in my room above my bed. When I was asked to write this post, I didn’t really have any words to explain why I loved it, other than that fact in itself, I loved it. I don’t even look at it very frequently. It’s just there. Yet I’m aware its’ presence in my peripheral vision impacts me every day. So when I really thought about it, this was apparently inside my brain…

I suspect my painting hangs there as a silent affirmation of my womanhood. To me, it speaks of what I love about being a woman; the strength, rootedness, vulnerability, sensuality, ferocity. I appreciate the image hugely as an expression of a moment in an individual woman’s experience, with not a man in sight. Please don’t misunderstand me, men are great. Really, truly wonderful. But so often sexuality seems to be based on and found in the opposite gender and a validation from their attention and approval. Not within oneself, as a fundamental basis of simply being human. There are undeniable connotations of male power in that water as it overwhelms her body. And of course, (disclaimer- with an appropriate level of consent) that can also be a beautiful thing. But to me, I see the sexual energy of a woman, as an independent being. An energy heightened by her surroundings and the context of destruction. And best part is, that energy is incidental, it’s just innately there. As I think it’s safe to say in that moment it isn’t her intention to please an audience.

The surrounding destruction leads me nicely to my next point. It’s almost strange that I like this painting. The few true nightmares I’ve had in my life, and I can imagine will continue to have, centre specifically on the world being swallowed up by water. I have always felt deep discomfort when confronted with the idea of mass destruction. My brother can testify to my panic when he discovered Godzilla, and more specifically its’ soundtrack, in 1998. When we had to watch The Day After Tomorrow in geography, my stomach dropped. But in my painting, I see her going on. She has endured, almost relished the experience and will go from there empowered.

It’s raw. It’s unspecific. The broad brush strokes, the lack of clarity in the background. I really don’t want to see her face. It’s sharing emotion, the sensation, not information.

And so that’s what spoke to me when I saw it for the first time two years ago. That’s why I had to have it in my possession. And why when I look up now, a little to my left, there it is. I suppose that’s the beauty of some art, in any form and despite my musings. It cuts through the crap and touches the very core of you, often subconsciously.

I decided, as I finished this, to look William Etty up. It seems he scandalised 19th century Britain. Some bright thing stated in the London Examiner, ‘No decent family can hang such sights on their walls’. Etty however, from what I can tell a modest and enlightened man, knew what was up. He responded to the criticism simply with, ‘to the pure in heart, all things are pure.’ It seems to me, he felt no need to prettify beauty, to put it in a box. Rather, he was unafraid of social constraints and explored and presented beauty in its’ fullest sense. Apparently even now people wish to assure me that his drawing is faulty and his work lacks life and originality. But I’m not the only one to feel he has been so underrated as an artist (perhaps by those with less twinkle in their eye and fire in their belly). I found most of this information in a 2011 article in The Guardian, entitled ‘Naked, beautiful and free- William Etty comes in from the cold’. I am so pleased that there are people out there ensuring Etty isn’t left in the narrow minded 1800s.

The article finishes with a quote from a PhD student at York University, who wrote a thesis on Etty. It’s a good finisher so I’m following suit. Etty “often expressed the belief that women were God’s most beautiful creation, and nothing was going to stop him from portraying them, brilliantly and again and again.” And looking back now at what I’ve written here, seeing as though I knew nothing about him, it seems this painting was a conduit for his spirit. A humble, graceful, insightful and passionate spirit, somehow flooded out of him and transferred into me. And with art, what more could you want? Thank you Mr Etty.

Victoria & Albert Museum, London