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Oil painting - Study of a Magdalen
  • Study of a Magdalen
    Etty, William RA, born 1787 - died 1849
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Study of a Magdalen

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (probably, painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1845 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Etty, William RA, born 1787 - died 1849 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    oil on canvas

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, Room 82, The Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries, case EAST WALL

St Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner who became a follower of Jesus and was present at his crucifixion. She was sometimes portrayed as a naked hermit contemplating a skull and crucifix, symbols of faith and mortality. Here Etty has depicted her in an unusually sensual pose, with long earrings to suggest her past as a prostitute.

Physical description

Etty was unusual amongst Victorian artists in devoting his career to painting the nude. Even as an established artist and Royal Academician, he visited the life-class regularly to draw from the model. The condemnation his work attracted focused on the earthy sensual character of his models. Unlike those who painted more acceptable nudes, he made no attempt to refine or perfect the female body, but represented recognisably real lower-class women. He was criticised in The Times for presenting his models 'in the most gross and literal manner' rather than aiming for the 'exquisite idealities' of Titian. The career of life-model was thought to be perilously close to prostitution since it inevitably exposed even respectable girls to the possibility of sexual exploitation; and some commentators thought that the artist himself was at risk of seduction by any woman whose morals were such that she could appear naked before him. Thus Mary Magdalen, generally characterised as a prostitute, was a very appropriate subject in the context of this moral debate. This is an unusual version of the theme (which Etty painted repeatedly) which combines the seductive nudity and elaborate jewellery of the courtesan with the book, skull and crucifix which are the usual attributes of the penitent Magdalen.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (probably, painted)


ca. 1845 (painted)


Etty, William RA, born 1787 - died 1849 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

oil on canvas


Height: 53.9 cm estimate, Width: 63.5 cm estimate, Height: 70 cm framed, Width: 85 cm framed

Object history note

Purchased, 1873

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'Study of a Magdalen', William Etty, ca. 1845

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Parkinson, R., Victoria and Albert Museum, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, London: HMSO, 1990, p. 85


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Crucifix; Nudes; Jewellery; Skull




Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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