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"The Slave Ship" by J.M.W. Turner

Kort introduksjon om romantikken og britisk romantikk særskilt. Analyse og tolkning av J.M.W. Turners bilde "Slaveskipet". Tverrfaglig engelsk- og kunst- og kulturhistorieoppgave.

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Romanticism in Art

The period in art history called Romanticism started around the end of the 1700th and forward to the 1850th. The Romanticism was a period in art that elevated folk art, nature and custom things, like in The Hay Wain by John Constable.


The Romanticism came to be as a reaction against the intellectual and cold lines of the Neoclassicism, The Romanticism encouraged the emotional, the imaginative, the transient and the exotic. In the Romanticism it became usual to paint in a picturesque way.


The Romanticism artists started to study and paint landscape, not only in connection with the depiction of human, but as a motif in itself. The thought in the Romanticism was that human should reject all artificial self-created systems and rules and seek back to the simple and natural both in itself and in its surroundings.


Romanticism in Britain

The Romanticism became strong in Britain, especially within Landscape paintings. There may be many reasons why the Romantic landscape paintings became so popular in Britain, but like for instance not in France.


One of the main reasons is said to be the large growth of people and lack of place during the Industrial revolution. The cities grew in size and in population, everything was dirty, and people started to long back to the countryside. Small private gardens, screened off, became the new fashion. A house or a trip to the countryside became a rich mans holyday. And so paintings that showed the typical British countryside became quite popular.


Joseph Mallord William Turner

J.M.W. Turner is one of Britain’s most important painters’ true time. He was a landscape painter, water colourist and printmaker.


His first works followed the usual British landscape tradition with an exact description of the motifs. Later on he moved towards a more colour and light based way of painting. To Turner it became more important to paint how he saw the motif, the nature, then to make a depiction of the motif. He used colour and its harmonies to make the atmosphere he wanted and to getter with the light his paintings really are breath taking.


Turner saw light as the emanation of God. In fact he saw nature in itself as an emanation of God and often used it to show how small and helpless we are compared to nature, compared to God. Turner imagination found joy and his motifs in shipwrecks, fires, natural catastrophes and natural phenomena, such as storm, sunlight, rain and fog.


At the end of his life he became more and more eccentric and his paintings became more non-figurative, it were now almost only the weather and the sky that mattered. The figures were almost dissolved in a shimmy fog made of light and colour.


He is said to be the main inspiration to the Impressionist even though they would not admit it. He also has been an inspiration to the Realists.



The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner.


An Analyse of the Painting The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner

The painting The Slave Ship was painted in 1840 by Joseph Turner and was based on an incidence that occurred in 1783.     It was the Captain of a slave ship that discovered that his insurance only cowered for slaves lost at sea, not for those who died on route. There by he ordered all sick and dying slaves thrown overboard.


The incidence was reported in the book; The History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, by Thomas Clarkson, the book had been a huge success and was to be reprinted in 1839. Turner has probably been prompted by this when he choose this subject for his painting.


It is not a very large painting only 93*122 cm. At this painting Turner has used Oil on canvas. The painting hangs in Boston, in the Museum of Fine Arts.


What is in the painting?

We are at sea, it is a stormy day with much waves and a strong wind.


In the front of the painting we see the sea full of fishes and slaves. In the front part of the painting the sea is somewhat calm.


In the middle of the painting we see more slaves and a few, but larger fishes. We see the slave ship as it struggles to keep control in the big waves, with its sails down. We see that the storm is much harder in the left fart of the painting.


The back of the painting, or the sky, has on the left side a big dark cloud approaching. More to the right the sun is on its way down into the sea and is forming a long tail that goes down toward the sea and is reflected on the sea, as a long thick vertical line.


We, the viewers are to see the painting at head height, straight in front of it.


How has he done it?

The painting The Slave Ship has an asymmetric composition and an unbalance that makes the painting very dramatic. The sun stripe is in the golden cut both horizontal and vertical. Vertical the boat and most of the horizon line are in the Golden cut to.


The room is divided by two lines, the firs on is the vertical sun line, the other on is the diagonal line that goes from left side at the top of the waves to the right side at the top of the waves there. These two lines together make a cross, and that is not so strange since Turner was a very religious man who saw God everywhere in nature.


Turner has made the room or the depth in the room very clear by for instance painting “lines”, like the waves or the sun reflection in the sea, that leads inwards to the sun in the back of the painting. These lines make it seem like the painting is based upon a Central perspective, although it is based on an air perspective.  


Turners’ use of forming the subjects in the painting by use of colour and shadow gives for instance the waves a very good 3D form.


The fact that the details are clearer and larger upfront and the gradually unclearty backwards makes the room very convincing.


The waves as they are fighting the ship, they are so obvious overlapping for instance, the ship or the ship as it is overlapping the waves it makes it clear that there is volume in the painting, that there is volume in the sea.


The painting The Slave Ship has a normal, frontal view angle, and the motif seems to be at a distant distance.


It is a very dynamic painting with a lot of movement and lines that creates movement for the eyes. These lines as good as drag or eyes into the painting, into the sun.


Turner is known for his dramatic use of colour and in this painting it creates a variation and separates the subjects from each other. Turner uses a colour technique that accentuates the light in the paintings. The dark colours have been neutralized by adding white in the colour so that it becomes less clear, duller. The light colours like orange and yellow has not been neutralized and against the neutralized colours they seem to be one by one more shinny and all together they create the shine that Turners paintings are so well-known for. And Turner usually did the colour mixing on the canvas to create more intense effect.


The light in the painting seems not only to come from the sun but from all the unneutralized colours. Turner saw the sun as God and the light as the emanation of God so in that way one could say that it is a sacral light. But it is also a realistic light, based on many years of light studies.


The painting has a very clear relief like surface and the texture is very picturesque, as the brush strokes are very evident.  



The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner, detail.


Why is it so, what does it mean?

As I told earlier the painting is based on a real story that occurs in the book The History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, by Thomas Clarkson. About the occurrence where a captain got all sick and dying slaves thrown overboard so that he could collect the insurance money. Appropriately, the painting’s full title is The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon coming on). Turners energetic and temperas depiction of this is most fair to the brutality of this act. The sun is here transformed into a falling comet surrounded by scarlet clouds. Superstition has it that scarlet clouds or red like coloured clouds is a sign of a catastrophe, that a murder crime has been committed.    


The slave ship moves into the distance, leaving behind a turbulent sea chocked with the bodies of slaves sinking to their deaths. The small human forms compared to the enormous sea and overwhelming sky reinforces the sense of the sublime, and shows the immense power of nature over humans.  

The event’s particulars are almost lost in the boiling colours; however, the cruelty is evident. We see iron shackles and manacles around the wrists and ankles of the drowning slaves, denying them any chance of saving themselves.


The approaching typhoon gives the painting an apocalyptic touch, it is like a cosmic catastrophe is about to absorb everything not only the guilty slaver, but also the sea itself with its swarm of fishes and slaves.  


Turner wanted the painting to give the viewers the feeling of shame over their fellow human’s sin, fear over the thought of their own sins and the day of doom. He also wanted it to make the viewer angry over the sin that is committed, not against the black as a people, but against human as Gods creation. But the painting some how became more admired because of its colour splendour then as mediator of strong emotions. Somehow Turner was misled by his own brilliance, and when Goethe’s Colour doctrine came out in English somewhat later I guess Turner most have realised that perhaps the colours did not have the effect one everyone that they were suppose to. Because as Goethe said; yellow has a “merry, slightly exciting character”, while orange-red hints to “warmth and happiness”.


Turner was what one would call a visionary; he created something more than just a new stile. Side by side with his fellow painter Constable he were Britain’s most influenced Romantic painter. They opened people’s eyes, senses, made them see nature as something more than just a trade way. Thou Turner even more than Constable showed people the wonders of nature. Where Constable were more absorbed in a realistic depict of nature, Turner wanted to show us God, God as nature, God against, above the human being.


But besides that he made a new way of painting, a way where light and colour were more important than the figurative. Where the feeling one got by looking at a stormy ocean meant more than a precise depiction of it.       


Landscape was the most popular in British romantic paintings, but Britain has a big coast and the sea is an important part of industry in Britain. So there is no wonder why the wild naval paintings of Turner became a hit.


I guess I did make a blunder with the colours, I do not feel the strong emotions the painting was supposed to mediate, when I looked at it for the first time I thought it was a beautiful, colourful painting of the sea. But then I looked closer, and as I realised what it was really was a painting of I felt sad but then when I read the whole title and the story behind I felt sick. So in a way it is a two-sided painting, on one side a beautiful painting, on the other side a depiction of a brutal and barbaric occurrence.






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