Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On)
Turner exhibited The Slave Ship along with an excerpt from his uncompleted long poem 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?”
Contemporary art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) admired The Slave Ship :
“But, I think, the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted, and, if so, the noblest certainly ever painted by man, is that of the Slave Ship, the chief Academy picture of the Exhibition of 1840. It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges, the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illuminated foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wilde groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fore, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the indistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which wall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and gives to the reckless waves the added motion of their own firey flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horrow, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, -- and cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.
I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this. Its daring conception – ideal in the highest sense of the word – is based on the purest truth, and wrought out with the concentrated knowledge of a life; its color is absolutely perfect, not one false or morbid hue in any part or line, and so modulated that every square inch of canvas is a perfect composition; its drawing as accurate as fearless; the ship buoyant, bending, and full of motion; its tones as true as they are wonderful; and the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions – (completing thus the perfect system of all truth, which we have shown to be formed by Turner’s works) – the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea.”
John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 1 (New York and Chicago, IL: National Library Association, n.d.), pp. 382-3.
Mark Twain sarcastically described his reaction to The Slave Ship :
“What a red rag is to a bull, Turner’s Slave Ship was to me, before I studied art. [British art critic, John] Mr. Ruskin is educated up to a point where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as it used to throw me into one of rage, last year, when I was ignorant. His cultivation enables him – and me, now – to see water in that glaring yellow mud, and natural effects in those lurid explosions of mixed smoke and flame, and crimson sunset glories; it reconciles him – and me, now – to the floating or iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things; it reconciles us to fishes swimming around on top of the mud – I mean the water. The most of the picture is a manifest impossibility – that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie. But it enabled Mr. Ruskin to do it, and it has enabled me to do it, and I am thankful for it. A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes. In my then uneducated state, that went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought here is a man with an unobstructed eye. Mr. Ruskin would have said: This person is an ass. That is what I would say, now.”
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1880), Part 4, Ch. 24.
Andrew Walker explains how interpretations of Turner’s The Slave Ship varied during its early years in America:
“When exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1872, bewildered art critics dismissed The Slave Ship on aesthetic grounds. Turner’s flecks of paint had turned a sensitive historical subject (the slave trade) into a confusion of color ‘dishevelled enough to life the hair of an imperfectly initiated disciple.’…For many New York critics, The Slave Ship was simply a puzzle, and when the picture was put on the auction block in December 1876, most anticipated a foreign, probably English, buyer.
But it was Alice Hooper, a wealthy and prominent Bostonian, who purchased Turner’s The Slave Ship at auction in New York City…Almost immediately, Hooper placed the painting on loan at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts….When first exhibited, The Slave Ship was…placed on its own easel in the main gallery of the Museum. Ruskin’s famous description of the painting was printed on cards and distributed about the hall….As a critic for the Boston Evening Transcript wrote: ‘Turner’s Slave Ship is a picture of moans and tears and groans and shrieks. Every tint and shade and line throb with death and terror and blood. It is the embodiment of a giant protest, a mighty voice crying out against human oppression. This shift in perception from an image of color specks to an image of protest raises an important question: How does the public display of a work of art influence its meaning? This article examines The Slave Ship’s exhibition history in Boston to demonstrate how certain elites sought to define the painting’s social significance….For the first three years, the painting was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts. During that time, a genteel band of socially active Bostonians developed a moral interpretation…that would later be used for political purposes. In the second phase, 1880-1890, The Slave Ship returned to the private home of the Hoopers…There, the painting’s powerful message as an indictment against the slave trade became a catalyst for political action: justification for imperial ventures into the Caribbean. The third phase was marked by…return to public exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1890…In 1899, when the Museum of Fine Arts finally bought The Slave Ship, the painting was installed and advertised not as a picture with important historical content but as one of the artistic masterpieces of the nineteenth century.”
Andrew Walker, “From Private Sermon to Public Masterpiece: J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship in Boston, 1876-1899,” Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, vol. 6 (1994): 6-7.