I have included a link to the image of "Slave Ship" as Digication is not currently allowing me to upload the image from my computer:
“Slave Ship,” painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1840, oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in., displayed in the Beal Gallery on Europe from 1800-70, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Throughout “Slave Ship,” only two sections, the slave ship and the drowning slaves being eaten by fish, are given distinct lines. The water, clouds and sky which dominate the painting are more rough, dappled, indistinct, and expressive. The lines of the ship’s masts and frame are sharp and almost slit-like, leaning diagonally towards sun at the center of the painting and conveying the ship’s instability amidst the waves. The line of the front of the ship points towards the dark and tumultuous cloud into which it is heading. The leg in the bottom left foreground of the painting points in the direction of the ship, along with all the hands rising from the water, which draws the viewer’s attention back to the ship in the background as if in accusation for the scene of drowning slaves. Black chains, painted distinctly against the water, subtly hint at the status of the slaves. The vigorous and blurred brushstrokes used for the fish feeding on the dead slave makes them appear to have been captured in the middle of rapid and frenzied motion. The protruding leg of the slave appears oddly bloated and oblong, some of the fish are unusually large and monstrous, and the rising of the chains out of the water seems to defy physics.
In addition to the lines of the mast and and slaves pointing towards the center of the painting, the clouds and waves also arc towards the sun, which serves as the work’s focal point and light source. Because the waves slant upward on either side of the center, despite the fact the painting is in linear perspective it does not have a horizontal horizon, which would make the image seem more calm. Instead, this slant of the waves around the focal point makes the image seem more unsettling and also serves to divide the most visible slave in the left foreground from the distant ship. Each seems to be visually separated further by the fact that they are on different sides of the focal point and the sun’s reflection, and the ship is placed in a contrast of vivid red light and blue darkness while the slave is surrounded by murky colors. Overall, the vibrant red, orange, and yellow of the sky conveys passion and almost resembles fire. While the area surrounding the ship and sun is highly saturated, the top right corner of the sky and bottom left corner of the water are duller, so the viewer’s attention is first directed towards the painting’s subject of the ship and drowning slaves. The brightness of the sky leads the darkness and murky brown tones of the water to stand out in particular against this backdrop.
Despite the fact that the water is distinguished from the sky by Turner’s use of color, the texture of each is somewhat similar, and the point at which the ocean ends and the sky begins is left vague. The orthogonal lines of the clouds and water eventually converge at the horizon below the sun, although the merging of colors makes the separation of the two especially indistinct at the vanishing point. Both the sky and the ocean seem substantial and filled with movement, as the sky is thick with clouds sweeping upwards and across, while the water is choppy with the tips of the waves giving it a similar upwards orientation. The vertical direction of every component of the work, including clouds, waves, slaves, and masts, gives the painting as a whole a sense of expressive and tumultuous movement. Although the ship is a primary object of the viewer’s focus, the vagueness of its hull helps convey how distant it is.
Turner’s Slave Ship is based on the actual 1783 event of British slave ship Captain Collingwood throwing overboard 122 diseased slaves into the ocean in order to collect insurance money, which could be collected for losing slaves at sea but not for slaves dying of illness, an insurance fraud which was common practice for slavers at the time(Fulford). Turner’s portrayal of this event demonstrates his abolitionist stance, a position which had become more widespread in England during the 1840’s and eventually led the British empire to enforce a ban on the slave trade throughout the Atlantic (Marcuse). During Slave Ship’s exhibition, Turner accompanied his painting with a poem:
"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?"
Turner figuratively seems to reflect on the inevitability of the slave trade’s end in describing the typhoon’s approach, which he also is able to characterize as a act of natural law against a human enterprise, which he mocks in the final line. His description of the slavers throwing the dead and dying overboard explains the scene of Slave Ship and allows him to only imply what has taken place in the actual painting. By using contextual materials such as this poem, he is able to avoid showing the slavers and by doing so giving them a human face. Turner characterizes nature as being “angry,” and his infusion of emotion in his description of the sun and clouds closely corresponds to his expressive style broad brush strokes in fiery colors. Just as his poem, his painting is literally centered around nature given his use of the sun on the horizon and his focal point. The fact that the horizon is as vague and the line of the waves is slanted helps convey the sense of distress and turbulence that is present in his other elements of style such as coloration and use of brush strokes. By focussing on the seascape and giving it emotional characteristics in apparent opposition to slavery, Turner may be attempting to emphasize the wrongs of slavery as violating natural law rather than attempting to frame it within primarily human terms.
Turner’s original title for the painting, “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying--Typhoon Coming,” gives additional context for the scene he portrays by confirming that the dying slaves in the water had been thrown overboard by the departing ship, and that the ship is heading into a storm. This title’s juxtaposition of the slaver’s killing of the slaves followed by foreshadowing the coming storm seems to suggest that the slavers are being met with a form of natural retribution as a direct result of their actions. This could either be a figurative means for Turner to display his own ill will towards the slavers, or a suggestion that the slavers are ultimately at the mercy of the same indifferent forces of nature that are at the moment are shown consuming the slaves.
Turner’s style and presentation of the scene suggests the insignificance of the human subjects of Slave Ship in comparison with the surrounding natural setting. The sky and water dominate the painting both in the amount of canvas they take up and in the vividness of their color. This leads the viewer to focus first on the painting as a scene of the ocean before recognizing the human elements of the painting. If not for the horrific nature of the scene of drowning slaves being abandoned by the ship, this aspect of the painting would almost seem to be an afterthought in comparison with the expressive display of natural power surrounding them. The fact that the slaves and the ship are more naturally painted makes them mundane in comparison to the broad brush strokes used for the seascape which gives it added emotional force. To further condemn the ship, the hands of the slaves and the leg of the nearest slave point back towards the ship, as if in accusation for their abandonment.
The perceived distance of the slave ship and the dying slaves relative to the viewer shapes one’s attitude towards each. The slaves in the water draw sympathy from the viewer given their nearness and the comparative clarity with which they are painted. The pain, desperation, and gruesome deaths of the slave is portrayed vividly in a manner that seems designed to draw compassion from the viewer to a greater extent than the ship. In portraying the humanity of the slaves while making the ship remote, Turner generates anger for those who abandoned the slaves without giving them a sense of humanity which might otherwise produce a measure of regret for the incoming retribution. Although the slave ship seems to be headed towards danger and one may likely notice the ship first given its proximity to the bright focal point, the viewer is not invited to sympathize with the ship given its distance.
Since its position makes it seem small in comparison with the rest of the scene, it also seems fragile and at the mercy of the waves surrounding it. Its thin masts reinforce this image, and the waves and mist surrounding, covering, and obscuring it further the impression that it could be swallowed by the sea at any moment. Turner’s use of color in Slave Ship also indicates the mood he seeks to establish, with the red of the sky invoking a sense of violent turbulence with its resemblance to fire, while the darkness of the sky the ship is heading towards conveys a sense of foreboding.
Despite the fact that the slaves are painted more clearly than the other aspects of the painting, Turner still made their forms vague and their circumstances ambiguous, particularly the hands rising from the water. This ambiguity furthers the viewer’s sense of horror using the unknown. The unrealistic and disproportionate forms of the fish and the slave’s leg make the image even more unsettling, as the fish seem monstrous and the human forms seem disfigured. In this way Turner has made use of two Romantic themes alongside each other, horror and the beauty of nature. By juxtaposing these themes he may be suggesting that the ugliness of slavery makes it an unnatural human institution, exposed against a natural backdrop of beauty.
Fulford, Sarah. “David Dabydeen and Turner’s Sublime Aesthetic.” Arthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 3:1 Spring 2005. anthurium.miami.edu... March 11 2011. Web.
Marcuse, Harold. “Turner’s ‘The Slaveship.’” UC Santa Barbara. www.history.ucsb.edu March 11 2011. Web.
Landow, George P. “J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship.” www.victorianweb.org... July 15 2007. Web. March 11 2011.
As a romantic painter in the early 19th century, Joseph Mallord William Turner made innovations both in his choice of subject and in his style. During his lifetime his work would receive criticism from many, but it was also famously championed by art expert John Ruskin and others for its emotional power (Walker, 1). In context with later developments in art, Turner’s work was eventually more broadly accepted in retrospective once impressionism, which employed similar styles and values, became prominent (Walker, 12) (Tate). In addition to anticipating many aspects of impressionism, many of Turner’s technical methods, such as painting in a studio based on sketches and notes after observing his subject, rather than painting at the scene itself, were later used by impressionists (Tate).
As subjects, Turner often painted landscapes and seascapes, which would become more widely respected and popular as a result of his work (Tate). In this way, Turner’s works anticipated and inspired the movements that proceeded him rather than representing the movements of his time.
While Turner often painted scenes from history or mythology, he still placed great focus on the surrounding environment to set the atmosphere for the scene as a whole, consistently using the sky towards this end. Turner’s use of the sky as a prominent light source for the rest of the image is one of the most noticeable aspects of his subject, as the sky often takes up a large section of the canvas and is made up of a vivid blend of color. Through his use of light and color, Turner often conveyed what the viewer must assume to be his emotional interpretation of his subject, as is apparent in Slave Ship with the darkened sky surrounding the slave ship and the looming sun serving as a focal point. Slave Ship serves as an example of a historical painting which placed unusual emphasis on surrounding nature rather than the event it was supposed to portray. As a result, it gathered criticism for being stylized to an extent which drew focus away from its anti-slave trade message, criticism which persisted both when it was originally painted in England, and later in New York and Boston (Walker, 8-9). Those who disliked Slave Ship also pointed out the unrealistic sea monsters it included and the physically improbable position of the chains and feeding fish (Walker, 9). This line of criticism can be viewed in terms of a struggle of romantics against realists, who felt that art should more exactly resemble reality, putting a mirror up to the face of the world in order to send a message. More romantically-minded critics viewed these details as irrelevant to the greater importance of the painting in conveying a feeling about the slave trade, not just an idea, which its style helped create.
At the time of Slave Ship’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, conferences were underway to consider whether or not the British empire should attempt to impose a ban on the slave trade throughout the atlantic (Walker, 1). Even after the slave trade had been abolished, however, the painting was considered a symbol against oppression in general (Walker, 10). Some felt its portrayal of inhumane actions could be used to help justify the intervention of world powers in places such as Africa and Cuba in which abuses were taking place (Walker, 10). In spite of the potency of its political message, Slave Ship’s stylistic influence surpassed its effectiveness as a symbol for social justice. Ironically this may actually confirm the viewpoint of its realist critics who felt its artistic flourishes overshadowed its content.
Perhaps Turner’s greatest stylistic innovation in painting is his use of indistinct blends of color and brush strokes, techniques that would be criticized at his time as incoherent and excessive but would later be widely employed in a similar manner by impressionists starting in the latter half of the 19th century. By reducing emphasis on detail and instead focusing on color and movement, Turner’s style, and later that of the impressionists, allowed the artist a greater degree of personal expression towards his subject and tweaking of objective reality. Turner’s work with the sun follows Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, which held that the power of nature and sunlight could overwhelm its viewer, and that this ‘sublime’ effect could be used to give artwork emotional force (Tate). This notion fits in with the romantic conception of nature’s emotional power, and romantics’ relative emphasis of emotion over intellect.
Despite his focus on nature, Turner also often painted newly developed technologies of industrialization, including trains and steam ships (The National Gallery). Unlike many other romantics, who felt that urban life and technology drew mankind away from nature, Turner embraced industrial development and painted machinery in the midst of dominant natural settings. Industrialization was one of the central historical trends of the 19th century, and Turner’s decision to portray it in a relatively positive light is a defining characteristic when compared to the majority of other romantics who felt threatened by technology.
Also in Turner’s portfolio of work were a series of prints of landscape scenes, which were more widely available to the public as they were reproducible (Tate). These prints inspired more people to travel in the countryside and get closer to nature, furthering the social objectives of the romantics on a more popular level.
Overall, Turner acted as an artistic innovator and precursor of impressionism while defying many of the conventions not only of painters as a whole but also those of romantics. Slave Ship stands as a strong example of his stylistic innovations and the romantic values he followed.
Walker, Andrew. “From Private Sermon to Public Masterpiece: JMW Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship’ in Boston, 1876-1899.” Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston vol. 6 1994. JSTOR. Web. www.jstor.org...
“Turner: Reflections of Sea and Light.” Tate Online. April 8 2011. Web. www.tate.org.uk
“Joseph Mallord William Turner.” The National Gallery. April 8 2011. Web. www.nationalgallery.org.uk...