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.
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)
5 Hear this word which I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
2“Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up.”
3For thus says the Lord God:
“The city that went forth a thousand
shall have a hundred left,
and that which went forth a hundred
shall have ten left
to the house of Israel.”
4For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:
“Seek me and live;
5but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beer-sheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nought.”
6Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
7O you who turn justice to wormwood,
and cast down righteousness to the earth!
8He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
9who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
10They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
11Therefore because you trample upon the poor
and take from him exactions of wheat,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
13Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
14Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
16Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
“In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! alas!’
They shall call the farmers to mourning
and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
17and in all vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,”
says the Lord.
18Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light;
19as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him;
or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images, which you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.