The sea is on fire. Yellow, red, orange; color churns and spits. The sky spills into the ocean, the ship lifted and tossed. On the left, a storm builds, a fist ready to pound. Above the storm a dirty red smoke rises, as if the blue grey were not a storm but water on an angry furnace. And in the bottom right of the canvas, a shackled foot gracefully and terribly prepares to sink.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775-1851) originally intended this painting to be titled “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On.” It was painted in 1840 response to an incident in 1781 when an illness on the slave ship Zong caused the slavers to throw sick slaves overboard to their deaths, as their insurance covered the “losses at sea” and not losses from illness. The painting was sold to an abolitionist from Boston, where it has remained at the MFA Boston since 1899.
The painting is brighter and lighter than I remembered it. The right half of the canvas is almost a buttercream yellow. That perverse color moves clockwise over the canvas, caressing the drowning foot, continuing to mirror the sunset and finally rushing upwards again to join in the typhoon. Is that putrid buttercream simply formal, so that the canvas comes together in a cohesive whole? To think that in depicting horror, such things could even matter.
Murky brown and mud red, small upward strokes poke out of the gentle curve between breaking waves. The hands are very small, almost could be a texture in the stormy sea. But they have fingers.
This painting is scary. It is fairly small, but it hits you like a truck. It captures the violence of nature, both of humans and of the sea, in a revolting way. It is hot and messy and unforgiving. The light doesn’t make sense, it seems to release the colors of heaven and hell rather than those of the sea. A triumph in matching the terror of a moment.
Image Information: Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775-1851), Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Over the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 1/4″ (via fotopedia)
On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Thank you all for reading my inaugural post on Art for Breakfast. Another work of art to come tomorrow – and the day after that, and the day after that!