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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. The Slave Ship 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.
The Slave Ship's 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. 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.”
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 becomes 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.
The Slave Ship is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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