Etty’s masterpiece

“Ulysses and the Sirens is one of those great efforts of my Art achieved in the vigour of my life, I can never make again”

William Etty

Etty regarded The Sirens and Ulysses as his best work. Enjoying his solo exhibition at the Royal Society of Arts in 1849, he reflected: ‘I then felt it was something to be William Etty’. The Sirens enjoyed pride of place, accompanied by music that was commissioned especially for the occasion.

The subject of the Sirens, from Homer’s Odyssey, was probably suggested by a friend. It fitted Etty’s artistic purpose perfectly. He wrote: ‘My aim in all my great pictures has been to paint some great moral on the heart… the importance of resisting SENSUAL DELIGHTS’. He researched the picture thoroughly, even studying corpses for the figures of the dead sailors.

The Sirens was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in 1837, and provoked a storm of public response. It was bought unseen by Daniel Grant, a Mancunian cotton merchant. The deal was struck over dinner after a day at Heaton Park races, and Grant paid Etty £250 – about £8,000 today – for two works.

Soon after, Grant gave the picture to his brother William, who presented it to the Royal Manchester Institution (Manchester Art Gallery) in 1839. In 1857 it was shown in the vast Art Treasures of the United Kingdom exhibition at Old Trafford in Manchester. Soon after that it went into long term storage, in too poor a condition to display.