26 January, 2007

J.M.W. Turner: The Slave Ship

Seaghbough says... Bricktop had it right.

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon Coming On (The Slave Ship), J.M.W. Turner, (1840)

Romantic painting is generally characterized by an emphasis on emotionally intense images, usually connected with nature. Often the Romantic artist will use color or brush stroke to create a dream like atmosphere where the viewer is left more with a sense of an event rather than a "realistic" depiction of it. Indeed, romantic artists often utilize dreams and nightmares as the setting of their works to emphasize just such intangible sensations - a kind of "nightmarish reality," as it were. It is within just such a nightmarish setting that one of J.M.W. Turner's greatest masterpieces, The Slave Ship, is framed.

The slave trade was an immensely profitable business. As a result, slavers often insured their human cargo. Slavers would collect on their insurance policies if the slaves died from drowning, but not if the slaves died due to disease or as a result of other inhuman conditions aboard slave vessels. Consequently, in order to achieve maximum profits, it was common practice to throw dead and dying slaves overboard, drowning them or allowing them to be devoured by the sea's creatures.

Turner depicts just such a scene in The Slave Ship. However, in the Romantic fashion, Turner emphasizes the scene's "nightmarish reality." The slavers have cast overboard the dead and dying to be devoured by sea creatures. However, Turner's creatures are not mere fish, but ravenous, ghastly monsters. Ascended from the deep they seek only to gorge on human flesh in a grisly feeding frenzy. In depicting the sea creatures in this way, Turner emphasizes the horrific nature of the event. [Indeed, one might say that what the slavers have done is so horrible that in a way it is beyond reality - that is, the reality is too nightmarish to be depicted "realistically." The cruelty of the slavers' actions is beyond a normal, moral person's comprehension. Thus, the depth of the slavers' cruelty is only comprehensible by depicting the scene in Turner's nightmarish fashion.]

To add to this horrific effect, Turner angles the painting's horizon in such a way that it is difficult for the viewer to properly orient himself to it. Tilting the horizon is something that would later be emulated in motion pictures through the use of a "Dutch Angle" - a deliberate tilting of the camera that distorts the viewer's perception in order to create a feeling of discomfort and disorientation. Turner's use of just such an angular distortion increases the viewer's discomfort and further enhances the nightmarish qualities of the painting.

Additionally, Turner's use of color and brush stroke convey a feeling of menace as well as foreshadow the coming judgment awaiting the slavers. As the slavers conclude their despicable act and turn their ship towards port and profit, they face the coming storm. With the storm, Turner's sky turns from a hazy white, to a light ochre, to a deep red, and finally to a raven black. Soon the slave ship will be swept up by nature's judgment aganst them. The storm will soon capsize the slave ship itself, and the slavers will suffer the same fate as those they have just condemned to death. Nature's retribution will be complete. The meaning of this message would not have been lost on Turner's contemporaries. Turner is stating that the slavers are criminals. They have not just violated nature's law, but God's law as well. Thus, Turner alludes not only to nature's fury at the slavers' transgressions, but also God's fury. Turner is therefore warning his contemporaries of the vengeance that awaits not only those slavers here portrayed, but also all those who partake in their villainous trade.


Anonymous said...

thanks a lot!!!!

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot!!!!

Adair Sheppard said...

hi. i'm writing an extended essay on romanticism for extension english and using turner's slave ship as one of my texts. you write very well, you obviously know your stuff, and i would like to use your blog as a source, and quote some material too… yet an anonymous blog isn't exactly a reputable source in my teachers' eyes, even if only for an interpretation, so could i possibly use your(the author of this piece) name to credit in an annotated bibliography? i can't seem to find the author's name on the page at all...