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This work of Turner’s is initially, strikingly beautiful.
Turner’s hallmark luminescent colors—reds and yellows thickly laid over the blue of the sky—glow over a stormy sea. The weather is changing from one side of the painting to another, and the waves are whipping up. Daggers of light pierce the clouds.
The next noticeable feature is in the middle ground: a distance away is a ship, its sails tied up in anticipation of a storm. The masts are red, as if painted with blood. After these initial impressions, the horror of the painting becomes apparent: in the lower right corner of the foreground is a leg, bound in chains. Fish and sea monsters swim in the churning water among floating bodies. The painting suddenly is not a gorgeous rendition of a glowing sunset, but is rather a murder scene--one so close in the foreground that the viewer is almost a participant.
The painting’s title reveals the cargo of the ship: human life. This painting is based on actual events that occurred sixty years before Turner painted the work. In 1781, in anticipation of bad weather, the captain of the overloaded slave ship Zong ordered more than one hundred slaves to be thrown overboard. If a slave was lost at sea, as opposed to dying on board from brutality, disease or starvation, insurance money could be collected. Captains with profits in mind unloaded the dead and dying into the oceans simply as good business practice. With darkness coming upon what looks to be a rough night, the captain of the ship in the painting has made the same decision as the captain of the Zong: to toss his human cargo overboard. In an almost nauseating swirl of colors we see body parts. Judging by the weather, it appears that the guilty man aboard the ship in the painting is about to be punished by nature.
With The Slave Ship, Turner is doing what horror movie directors do: take an innocent setting that we are comfortable in—the sea at sunset under a glorious sky--and show the macabre within that scene to cause a powerful emotional shock. The setting contrasts with the action to highlight the horror. Without knowing the title of the painting, we might not notice the nightmare happening just in front of us. By naming the action of the painting and making it clear what event is depicted, Turner is making a comment on the importance of the naming of things and headlines. A Boston critic said of the painting when it was first displayed there in 1899, “It is the embodiment of a giant protest, a mighty voice crying out against human oppression.”
We see the beauty and power of nature amid a horrific act. Turner was 65 years old at the time he painted this; he wasn’t experimenting anymore. This is an artist sure of his methods and his message, at a time when he was producing his strongest work. John Ruskin, one of Turner’s critics and the first owner of The Slave Ship wrote: “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”
The Slave Ship is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The first owner of the painting was the Victorian art critic, John Ruskin; the next owner was an American abolitionist—someone who was opposed to slavery and was fighting in the struggle to end it. Slavery was outlawed in the British colonies in 1833, but was legal in the U.S. until the 13th amendment was ratified in December of 1865. This painting is dated 1840 and was probably painted to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society, at which Crown Prince Albert spoke. Turner painted the piece probably with the hope that Prince Albert would see the painting and be moved to increase anti-slavery efforts at the global level. Many British were working to end all slave trade in the Atlantic and with The Slave Ship Turner uses his voice as one of the best known painters of the time, to comment on the issue. Turner was inspired by the story of the Zong and the book The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson. The painting was originally displayed with a few lines of Turner’s own poetry, the depressingly titled, The Fallacies of Hope:
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?
His use of light, color and soft brush work are typical of Romantic painters, Turner brought to the genre heightened effects by making the human figure and anything manmade seem tiny and unimportant compared the natural setting. Like the Romantics, he was always chasing the notion of the sublime: the terrifying power of the beauty of nature. This focus of nature’s power over man is shown by his use of ships, trains and other human-made elements of the industrial age in awe-inspiring settings.
Color and short brush strokes move the eye around The Slave Ship quickly. The perspective is created by the calm sweep of clouds around the far-away sun and ship in the background, and the ship’s wake becoming smaller in the distance. The smaller brushstrokes and more defined shapes help bring the chaos and violence to the foreground. Arms, legs, hands and chains in the ship’s wake in the foreground are the clearest lines in the painting; their sharp lines bring them forward, creating depth. Part of the power of this painting comes from this contrast created in the wide perspective: the tumultuous activity in the foreground layered over the peaceful background.
As always, Turner’s use of color is masterful. In his paintings skies glow and areas of brightness dissolve into the forms they illuminate. His contemporary John Constable said that Turner “painted with tinted steam.” Some of his critics thought his later painting style shown in The Slave Ship and The Blue Rigi were a sign of dementia and didn’t appreciate the airy dreaminess Turner depicted.
Because of his pioneering techniques and wide influence, he is often described as one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century. Turner was one of the first to break down forms and scatter light, to have the subject of the painting be the effect of the atmosphere on forms—a mountain, a ship, a cityscape--more than the forms themselves. Although his critics didn’t care much for it, he was a huge influence on not only the Impressonists (Monet and Pissarro lived in London for time and visited his work frequently to analyze and discuss Turner’s methods.) but also much more recent artists like Mark Rothko. His work had a deep and lasting effect on artists and the art movements that followed him. He is thought to be a sort of godfather to Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, You can picture Monet viewing Turner’s Sun Setting Over a Lake, nodding and saying, “Yes. This.”
He started as child copying engravings and painting landscapes in watercolor. As a young artist he made copies of English romantic painter John Robert Cozens. Turner’s father, a barber, sold the copies in the window of his barber shop. Similarities can be seen in how a dreamy quality to light is rendered, especially in Cozens paintings like The Castle of Salerno, near Cetara. Turner entered the school of the Royal Academy of Art at age 14 and drew and painted from both plaster casts and life. He gained additional experience working as an architectural draftsman and designing sets. He exhibited his first work for the Royal Academy, A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth at the age of just fifteen. He turned to oils in his early twenties to gain a more serious professional standing—however the transparency of watercolor can be seen as a major influence in his work in oil. In his early works the focus is as much on architectural details as on nature. His painting style changed around 1800. He began to focus on atmosphere and creating a luminous feeling through color and the effects of light. Frosty Morning is an example of the work of his middle years where the shift takes place.
Eventually he was appointed professor of perspective at the Academy. He held this position for over thirty years, with his father—always one of his best supporters--working for him as a studio assistant until his death.
Turner traveled a great deal and made observations of the landscapes of England, Wales, and Scotland. He traveled to France where he wandered the halls of the Louvre and studied the old masters. He traveled throughout Italy, Germany and Switzerland and made hundreds of sketches. His early work as a draftsman gave him a foundation for establishing precise renderings, and from this practice he could quickly record his impressions for use later. From his sketchbooks he drew inspiration for later paintings, referring to them to combine the exact information gained on site with memory and imagination. His The Grand Canal, Venice combines multiple views of the city’s famous landmarks, a composite view made from his many sketches.
The Slave Ship is 91cm by 122 cm, 3 feet by 4 feet. This was a standard size for Turner and is one of many his paintings done at this size. This was not a common size for the period, and it is thought that he had the canvases custom-made, probably with the help of his studio assistant-father. He painted quickly and wanted canvases that allowed for this. He worked directly on a canvas primed with white, without a mid-toned underpainting, with a brush loaded with paint. He also used a palette knife, a tool usually used for mixing colors, to spread paint around on the canvas. In some areas of The Slave Ship, paint is laid on thickly, especially in foreground and the clouds which show the mark of the palette knife and brush—a technique called impasto. These thick areas of paint allow the light to be caught and create highlights along the edges of the waves and other areas of the composition.
He experimented using the same pigments in both oil and water, and was an early adopter of various new colors such as cobalt and viridian. His preferred colors to gain his hallmark luminosity were ultramarine, white lead and a very toxic yellow. Later he used chrome yellow and Naples yellow. During his own time his work was well received by patrons, but critics considered his working with color in this way “treacherously bright.”
He believed the categories he explored—pastoral, mountainous, historical, architectural and marine—could express the full range of artistic and emotional meanings. He looked to Piranesi’s architectural fantasies and Claude Lorraine’s idealized landscapes. From them he learned to imbue his own paintings with a large-scale theatricality that caused an emotional reaction. When the house of Parliament burnt down, he watched from a boat on the Thames, sketchbook in hand. His wish to depict tragedies and contemporary life’s sublime moments, as in The Slave Ship, is also apparent in The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons and Rain, Stream, and Speed, The Great Western Railway.
The Slave Ship, one of Turner’s major works, exhibits his technical abilities and control of paint to render light and atmosphere that made him both celebrated and controversial. The political commentary in the action of The Slave Ship shows another dimension of this painter’s ability to take on complicated and sophisticated work.
Turner’s last work of this caliber that sold at auction broke records for the highest price ever paid for any British-born artist. In 2014 Rome, from Mount Aventine sold for $47.6 million, putting his work in the same class as someone like like Rubens in terms of price. Julian Gascoigne, Senior Specialist in British Paintings at Sotheby’s auction house, said: "Turner is one of those seminal figures who changed the way we see and think about the world. An artist rooted in the aesthetic philosophy and culture of his time, perpetually engaged with the art of both his predecessors and contemporaries, he was at the same time possibly the first 'modern' painter; who directly inspired the Impressionism of the nineteenth century, and presaged the Abstract Expressionism of the twentieth. These late works in particular, with their bold application of colour, treatment of light and deconstruction of form, revolutionised the way we perceive the painted image. By applying the techniques of a watercolourist to the use of oils, with successive layering of translucent colour thinly applied to the surface, which imbue his canvases with rich, hazy light, he gave his works an unprecedented poignancy and power that has rarely been rivalled since.
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