Episode 18: JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840)


The great poet of our time, Cher Horowitz, when describing her tacky frenemy Amber, once remarked, “She’s a full-on Monet.  From far away she’s okay, but up close she’s a big old mess.”  Like everything else about the movie Clueless – and sorry not sorry for dating myself – there’s incredible wisdom to be found in the tossed-off lines.  When looking at art, we forget that where we stand, and how we approach, can change the experiencing of it dramatically.  Of course, with respect to Monet, and what Cher was getting at, is the closer in you get on one of his landscapes, the more the painting’s subject dissolves into layers of diffused brushstrokes, almost to the point where it becomes difficult to decipher the image at all.  Going back and forth can feel almost like a Magic Eye, where we see the image, then lose it, then see it again, all thanks to his incredible facility with paint, and specifically painting light.  It’s majestic, but confusing.  Because we’ve come to expect two distinct kinds of art – one that’s representational, like Sargent, that tells a story we can read, and the other that’s more abstract, that reveals itself with slow, focused looking, like Pollock.  It’s a particular kind of viewing experience that comes from a painting that repeatedly takes you back and forth, whose brushstrokes allow for a story in one glimpse, and a big old mess in another.

It’s significant to enter The Slave Ship through the eyes of Monet.  We’re used to Monet being held up as the gold standard when it comes to rendering light, allowing light to be its own subject matter, and showing off its myriad personalities.  But Monet, a generation later, was looking at this painting too.  Monet wouldn’t have been Monet without the powerful influence of the artist who could, according to the critic John Ruskin, “most stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature”, the English Romantic “painter of light,” Joseph Turner. 

Turner, "The Slave Ship" (detail)

Turner, "The Slave Ship" (detail)

Turner was a master of capturing the distinct quality of light, and championed the quick, frenzied watercolor-like brushstrokes and borderline abstraction that would become the bread and butter of Monet and the Impressionists in the 1870s.  And the light in this painting is the first thing that hits you.  The longer I stand in front it, the more I find myself squinting.  The light from the center glows brighter as you stare, flooding the canvas like you’re watching a sunrise in real time.  And this feeling of warmth on the horizon stands in direct contrast to the horror that is being illuminated in the foreground.  Go closer.  Those are limbs, and hands.  Those are feeding fish and circling birds.  Those are chains.  That’s blood.

This painting is utterly and completely disturbing, and at first glance, you’d never know, because those details in the foreground are dependent on closer looking than that light allows, and it’s hard to look directly into the sun.  But even if you can’t make out the specifics of the horror, you know, innately, that something powerful is happening.  You sense a churning sea and a red sky, although without knowing if this is sunset or sunrise, you don’t know whether to take delight or warning.  You can see an oncoming storm in the white-capped waves and the pinks and purples on the left hand side, and you see a ship about to sail right into it with none of its sails unfurled, which can’t be a good thing.   There’s an uneasy feeling that the white light in the center of the horizon is somehow controlling all of this roiling chaos, like the bright eye of God, sitting in the perfect central axis point between the sea and the sky.  And this kind of painting that overwhelms the senses, that stirs your heart and soul to the point of seasickness, is classic Romanticism. 

Romantic painting, like all of the art, architecture, and music that came from the Romantic period, is characterized by this kind of soul-stirring grandness, the watermelon you can’t swallow whole.  Listen to Beethoven blasting out of Classical convention in your head as you look at this painting, emotional and gorgeously melodramatic.  Artists are painting the vulnerability of humanity in the face of the sublimity of nature.  The natural world is awe-inspiring, unmastered, and ready to swallow us whole.  Natural phenomena and natural catastrophes become the subject matter of the day – sun, fog, storms, and the violent power of the sea – often with humans at their mercy.  Aesthetically speaking, it makes sense that it takes a more liberated, frenzied brushwork to capture this kind of fog and spray.  The Sublime requires an opening up of the brushstroke.  Atmospheric abstraction becomes the only painterly language.  Solid details become a distraction from this overwhelming whole.

So why all the gloom and doom?  What was the appeal of an artistic style that pits poor mankind against the undefeatable foe of nature?  It seems masochistic, even nihilistic, but there’s more to it than that.  It’s a self-investigation of sorts, this acknowledgement of our powerlessness against nature, and not just natural disaster, but human nature, our basest instincts, ourselves.  And that, to Romantic painters, was worth exploring.

Romantic painting was born, however indirectly, from the Enlightenment, which itself was a self-investigation of sorts, a direct response to what we can and can’t know as we process the world and our place within it.  The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement in 18th century Europe that centered on reason, scientific inquiry, and liberalism as our primary means of understanding the unknowable aspects of human experience, of shedding light onto the questions of humanity’s existence that had, until this point, been confidently answered by both the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.  This is the period that has been credited with giving birth to the modern world: in the beginnings of the separation of church and state, the writings of Adam Smith, the aftershocks of Newton’s apple. 

Jacques-Louis David, "Oath of the Horatii" (1784)

Jacques-Louis David, "Oath of the Horatii" (1784)

From an art historical perspective, the movement that best illustrated this new period was actually Neo-Classicism.  The name is exactly what it sounds like: the new classicism.  It makes sense that if you’re going to develop a movement that values reason and democracy in direct opposition to the Catholic Church, you’re going to resurrect, so to speak, a period before Catholicism that values reason and democracy.  Which is to say, Ancient Greece.  Suddenly 18th century art is inundated with Greek columns and togas, with rigid rules, symmetry, and simplicity, and with clear, organized light sources and fixed perspectives worthy of the Renaissance – the last time artists revived antiquity.  This is art that exudes, in the words of Neoclassical art theorist Johann Winkelmann, “noble simplicity and calm grandeur”: picture the clean, pyramidal composition of David’s Oath of the Horatii, and hear the tight structure of a Mozart concerto.  This art is a clear example of the value of understanding the world, and even ourselves, intellectually, rationally, and with empirical understanding – all of the little messes of the human condition tided up for company.

But wait, you’re thinking.  That’s not what I see in the Slave Ship at all.  I don’t see order, I see disorder.  I don’t feel a world on a calm human scale, I feel overwhelmed and queasy.  Well, that’s that pendulum swinging back again.  No one can stay inside the lines for too long.  Picture Animal from the Muppets at the drumset, being forced to stay on Pachelbel Cannon’s beat, all crazy eyes and labored breathing.  He’s gonna blow.  And that blow was Romanticism. 

Now, I should add the disclaimer that it’s of course overly simplistic to pare down these movements to such a clean cut case of action/reaction.  Neoclassicism and Romanticism overlapped quite a bit, and there’s plenty of drama and plenty of structure in both.  But for the purposes of what we’re talking about, it’s important to think of both movements as a response to this newfound ability to see the world as knowable, with pinholes of light shining through the imperious cloud cover of Catholicism and political control.  Are we going to understand the world intellectually and rationally, like the Neoclassicists?  Or emotionally and irrationally, like the Romantics?  And it’s not unlike holding up a Picasso and a Kirchner side by side.  Either way, head or gut, this is a brand new kind of introspection.  The rules aren’t being dictated by the church, but by our own experience.  And experience can be scientifically provable, and it can colored by our own emotional filters.  Romantic artists painted dreams and fears and hallucinations – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, the Surrealists would take up their mantle, a century later.  Romantics painted the feeling in your chest when you feel love and pain and ecstasy and suffering, and pulled the viewer in by the navel to experience these emotions, illustrated by a violent, churning sea.

Which brings us back to The Slave Ship.  The story depicted in the foreground is one that actually happened.  The full title of the painting is “The Slave Ship Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On”, which alludes to the true story of the English slave ship Zong, which was making passage from Africa to Jamaica in 1781.  132 slaves became sick, and the captain made the unconscionable decision to throw them overboard, as the insurance would pay out for slaves who were “lost at sea”, but not who died due to illness.  It’s utterly horrifying, and Turner was clearly disturbed by it, so much so that he painted this 28 years after writing a poem about it, titled “Fallacies of Hope” and referencing “an angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds” and the throwing overboard of the dead and dying, asking “hope, fallacious hope, where is thy market now?”  Clearly, the image of this story, the chains, the hands, the desperation, was stuck in his head for a long time.  The moral outrage was shared by many of his contemporaries, including John Ruskin, the English critic I mentioned earlier.  Ruskin was first owner of this painting, and ending up selling it to an abolitionist, but not before writing about it at length, describing the advancing storm “like the shallows of death upon the guilty ship…its thin mast written upon the sky in lines of blood.”  The divine retribution is palpable.  This ship is about to steer directly into the consequences of its actions.

But wait.  That doesn’t feel so Romantic anymore, does it?  It’s too tit for tat.  Romanticism is supposed to be about the irrationality, and overall indifference of nature.  Why should nature care if human beings do terrible things to each other?  One shrug of nature’s shoulders and we’re toast anyway, so why expend the energy to judge us?  Turner paints Romanticism doing what Romanticism does best: using the irrationality of nature writ large as a stand-in for our own irrationalities, what we try so desperately to understand in ourselves.  There’s no way to understand what goes through the soul of someone who decides to commit an act as heinous as this.  How could this captain have even understood it in himself?  And though Turner is clearly coming at this painting from a place of his own moral authority, he is also bowing down to our inevitable subservience to nature of all kinds.  There’s a core to this story that he can’t wrap his mind around, that he himself is powerless to comprehend.

And this is why we end up with a painting that slips in and out of our own visual comprehension, how easily we can look past the specificity of the figures in the foreground and read it as a big old mess, or, as a Boston newspaper critic at the time described, awesomely, as “a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.” 


Turner is taking a calculated risk by turning this specific story about a specific horrifying action into this whipping frenzy of indistinct red-spattered waves, and shunting the chains, the hands, the desperation, even as they dot the foreground, into the background.  He’s taking a risk by ultimately making this morality tale actually a story about nature.  Because really, that’s what it is.  What we lose in his swallowing up these gory details, we gain in a universal understanding of humanity.  At our most primal, he seems to be saying, we are self-serving survivalists who have been guilty of very reprehensible things when we feel threatened, or fearful, or greedy, and that’s a very, very hard thing to push back against.  So does that mean we just sail in the storm, knowing that we’re powerless?  I don’t think that’s what Turner believed—again, Romantics were dramatic, but not nihilistic.  If nothing else, there’s value in self-awareness. So maybe the best we can do, knowing that the storm is out there, waiting, is acknowledge it, and steer clear as best we can, with our sails unfurled.