Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 99.22, Photo: © 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Rolling Down Like Waters

Commentary by

The English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner stands as a symbol of changing times. Breaking the rules of representation that he had inherited, Turner’s emotionally expressive brushstrokes asked viewers to make an inventory of their experience of a sublime world. This was perhaps especially the case in his celebrated seascapes.

In Slave Ship, Turner produces a vision of overpowering natural forces in the specific context of an immense human evil. The slave ship presses through the tumultuous waters, throwing bodies into the deep, which remain barely visible amidst the swirling strokes of his paintbrush.

As our attention is claimed by Turner’s all-consuming sea, a resonance with the words of the prophet Amos may also assert itself. Is the power of the Lord discernible in this chaos?:

…who calls for the waters of the sea,
 and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,

who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
 so that destruction comes upon the fortress. (Amos 5:8b–9)

Turner’s full title for the painting was Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), and he provided an accompanying text when submitting it to the Royal Academy in 1840, which ends:

Hope! Hope! Fallacious hope!
Where is thy market now? (May 2014: 113; Joll, et al 2001: 302)

The Royal Academy exhibition that year was happening at the same time as the Anti-Slavery League Conference in London. Turner’s painting fiercely interrogates the morality of the transatlantic slave trade, which had only relatively recently ended for Britain (Joll, et al 2001: 303). Its accompanying text and unapologetic presentation strike an Amos-like prophetic chord.

‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (5:24). This painting evokes the raw emotion of Amos in its calculated yet unrestricted presentation of the slave ship amid rolling waters.

Turner leaves us, as in Amos 5, with a vision of impending doom: the typhoon coming on. As long as injustice prevails, divine judgement draws near. We are left to contemplate our own moral failings as the ship sails toward the darkened horizon.

 

References

Costello, Leo. 2012. J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History (Surrey: Ashgate)

Joll, Evelyn, Martin Butlin, and Luke Herrmann (eds). 2001. The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

May, Stephen J. 2014. Voyage of the Slave Ship: J.M.W. Turner’s Masterpiece in Historical Context (Jefferson: McFarland and Company)