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J m w turners painting the slave ship

History[ edit ] J.


In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. This event probably inspired Turner to create his landscape and to choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Although slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire since 1833Turner and many other abolitionists believed that slavery should be outlawed around the world. Turner thus exhibited his painting during the anti-slavery conference, intending for Prince Albertwho was speaking at the event, to see it and be moved to increase British anti-slavery efforts.

  • This in turn, prompts his audience to become aware of the necessary change;
  • This photographic reproduction is therefore also considered to be in the public domain in the United States;
  • 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.

Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard The dead and dying — ne'er heed their chains Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope! Description[ edit ] The first impression that the painting creates is of an enormous deep-red sunset over a stormy sea, an indication of an approaching typhoon.

The masts of the ship are red, matching the blood-red colour of the sky and the sickly copper colour of the water, which serves to blur the lines between various objects in the painting. In the foreground can be seen a number of bodies floating in the water; their dark skin and chained hands and feet indicate that they are slaves, thrown overboard from the ship.

Looking even more carefully, one can see fish and sea monsters swimming in the water, possibly preparing to eat the slaves, and sea gulls circling overhead above the chaos. Consistent with Turner's emphasis on colour in many of his other works, the painting's central focus is on the interactions of various colours.


Few defined brush strokes appear in the painting, and objects, colours, and figures become indistinct. Rather, objects are defined by their colours in the painting, and some objects like the bodies of the slaves and the incoming storm have no real border at all, being solely defined by the contrast with the pigments around them.

The most prominent colours are the red of the sunset which encroaches into the water and ship as well, and the maroon of the bodies and hands of the slaves. The indistinct shapes and the pervasiveness of the sunset's blood-red colour serve to convey a focus on nature and illustrate the idea that nature is superior to man.

Other colours in the painting, such as the cool blue of the ocean and the black caps of the water, bring the ocean's hues to life and give the viewer a sense of the true emotions of the natural world. The fact that the figures in the painting are depicted as minuscule and that even the ship is shunted to the background in favour of the water and the sun further serve to decrease the emphasis on humanity and transfer it to nature.

The idea of the sublime is of the utter powerlessness and terror of humanity in the face of nature; by dramatising the strength of the waves and sun, Turner uses The Slave Ship to encapsulate, perfectly, Burke's definition of the term. Turner's decision to paint the work with a series of quick, frenzied brush strokes rather than carefully defined lines adds to the intensity of the painting, serving to make the viewer feel even more overwhelmed.

The painting might be viewed as an allegory against the exploitation of slaves and other human labour in favour of machines and economic advancement, represented by the coming storm engulfing the cruel captain. However, the storm could also be viewed as a representation of nature's dominance over man and of the ultimate futility in trying to industrialise and advance society.

Why JMW Turner's 'The Slave Ship' still resonates today

Ruskin is educated in art 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 of 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. Ruskin would have said: This person is an ass. That is what I would say, now.