The Slave Ship J.M.W Turner

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The Slave Ship

Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying - Typhon coming on (“The Slave Ship”)

Turner, John Mallord William (1775-1851)
Romantic Landscape Painter

1840; Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"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?"
JMW Turner displayed this poem with his Slave Ship in 1812

Poem by Robert Bloomfield

The Slave Ship painting by British Artist Turner is said to have been inspired by the practice of the late eighteenth century Atlantic slave traders who would throw the dead and dying slaves overboard in order to collect the insurance money paid out upon their death but only if they drowned. Turner is said to have been influenced by the ‘Zong Massacre of slaves 1781’

In this essay I intend to discuss three aspects of the work. The first will be the subject matter of the painting the second will be the composition and finally the style and colours in which it was painted.

With The Slave Ship it may have been a personal relationship between the Artist and his subject matter or it may have been that he was enrolled among other artists for example like Johan Moritz Regundaz 1802-1858 and Auguste-Francois Biard 1979-1882 to advance the Abolitionists cause worldwide through their art. ‘The British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade: its emblem of 1787 with a chained black slave begging to be freed and a diagram of a slave ship illustrating the inhuman way in which Africans were stowed when crossing the Atlantic’. (A World History of Art – Hugh Honour and John Fleming P. 656) Although slavery was abolished in Britain at the time that this painting was painted it was still thriving in Europe, the United States and many other places throughout the world.

Turner has taken a sensitive matter of that time and through his work has shown the atrocity of slavery and the treatment of slaves in a very direct and uncompromising way. The lack of value on a living human being is shown by Turner through the visual image of the slaves who were diseased or dying having been thrown into an unmerciful sea. The complete disregard for the fate or state of these slaves who were only seen as a commodity is forcefully shown.

My initial reaction to The Slave Ship was one of interest and then shock. At first I thought I was looking at a stormy seascape. A ship fighting for control with a turbulent sea in the background then as my eye was drawn across from the ship and toward the bottom of the painting I started to see shackles and chains attached to human limbs coming out of the water desperately reaching for help. The maroon and red colours in the water that you see is actually the sea stained with the blood of supernatural sea creatures gorging on drowning human beings. A raging dark sky and sea and then the sun shining made for incongruous and brutal viewing.


Slaves cast overboard (detail of the Slave Ship)

I don’t think that it is immediately clear what is happening in the painting but it is definitely obvious that something terrible is going on. The title explains everything. The way The Slave Ship is composed is immediately interesting to the eye. The ominous sky with the sun shining on and across part of the sea gives a stark contrast. The ship is going to the left looking very vulnerable but still determined with the sails of the vessel furled as if to prepare for worsening storm conditions. This is depicted by the sky and the winds that are evidently high judging by the size of the swell and foam of the sea.

In the positioning of the lower foreground there are huge fish feasting and the arms...
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