How can Art influence our views? Images have been used for thousands of years to change them. For example, the early religious figurines, or the present day modern media, photojournalism. What makes paintings(especially this one) special, is the way they grip you, nearly forcing emotions on you. The story behind it, if orally told is sad, and cruel; but the painting gives a much heightened sense of this, giving it more poigniency, and suffering.
The painting in question: “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon Coming On” 1840 by Joseph M.W.Turner 1775-1851, is a medium sized(90.8×122.6 cm) oil on canvass. In Turner s own life time, it was owned by his dear friend Ruskin. Now it belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, in the fair city of Boston. The first time it was publicly displayed was in London, during the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy 1840. The painting depicts a true story, that during a storm in 1783 Captain Collingwood, ordered his crew of the “Zong” to throw all the sick, and dying slaves off the boat. The reason being, that it was possible to claim insurance if a slave was killed in a storm, but not if he(or she), was killed by disease or otherwise.
The colours are the most striking element to this painting. They are typical of his late style, using, “reds and bold primary colours.” What really gives the painting it s power, is the, “opposed hot and cool colours”. For instance, the dark areas of sea are a stark contrast to the flare of bright light in the center. This gives a visual clash to the painting( it was to strongly influence Monet in his “Gare St.Lazare” series), giving it a monumental sense of power. Unfortunately the strength of the colour, is lost on the postcard reproduction. The dazzling whites of the breaking waves to the left of the painting, and of the sun, are lost. As are the deep shades of purple, orange, and red, which give it a moody, angry feel.
It has a simple, cross shaped composition. The sun, and it s reflection on the sea, crossed by the horizontal of the sea. When looking at the original you are first attracted to the centrally placed sun. Then, the clever part, suddenly, and crashingly your eyes are brought to the left, to the brilliant white of the explosion, or spray of water there. This struck me as incredible, the way the explosive spray is mirrored in the viewer s path of sight. Then the violence of the painting is revealed, in the fishes violent feeding frenzy, to the bottom left of the painting. Apparently, according to Ruskin, “the two ridges of emourmous swell” are supposed to represent sexual imagery, although I still remain skeptical about this.
The variety of brushstrokes, which causes the variety of surface texture, is again typical of his late style. There is a pronounced shift from the chiaroscuro, of the upper left of the painting, to the rough pasty, and visible brush stokes of the waves and the rest of the sky. The roughness of the other areas of sky, and the waves accentuate it s turbulence. More importantly though I think, is that the rough handling mirrors the violence of the subject, in a crude way matching the cruel handling of the slaves. On the postcard you can make out a few areas of where the surface has a rougher texture, especially to the area to the left of the sun s flare. An interesting detail the postcard does not show, is how the two edges on the bottom of the painting are not fully painted. The canvass is clearly visible, at these two corners. The brushstrokes here are very rounded, again mirroring the sea s natural form, whereas the corners in the upper half are filled up, this in contrast to the lower corners, suggest an infiniteness.
As with most great paintings, it is the details of the painting which affect the overall feel. The waves buffeting the ship, seem plain enough on the reproduction, but on the original they are a spray of white. The boat is coloured dark red, most probably a symbolic reflection to the sinful deed just committed. If this is true, then it would seem as though the ship was suffering, being put through a penance. But nonetheless, the ship appears to be in good condition, which is important as it highlights their deed. As if the ship was in trouble, then it might have been conceivable in some way to throw the people overboard.
The patch of blue sky, just visible to the top left of the frame shows good weather approaching, signaling the end of the storm. It also acts as a contrast to the storm around the ship, that instead of sailing out of the storm, it seems to sail into it. The parallel in life being, that they brought the subsequent repercussions upon themselves, and taken to court. The weather also recreates a pathetic fallacy, of a moody dark scene. The sun, or flare , could also be God viewing this deed with disgust, presiding helplessly, over this hellish scene. The sulfurous yellow, and orange, heighten this feeling. To the left of the sea, the scene appears to trick you. If you look closely, it looks as if there is a wave coming in from the far left, to center, rather like it is about to break on a beach. The beach here being just below, to the left of the flare . But where the swash should be retreating, it is actually advancing, being part of a multitude fish almost swooping in for the feast. This perceived advance where there should be retreat, serves to give more motion to the scene.
Then we come to the human figures in the water. The most interesting detail here, is that the figures do not have coloured skin, but white skin. But, technically they should be coloured, as they were slaves from Africa. From this we can tell with a certainty, that this is a comment by the artist. That Man will kill Man, for material riches, regardless of race.
The pathos of the scene, is portrayed by the many hands, reaching up out of the water for supplication, which we know they will never get. The irons they still wear, can be seen coming out of the water. The patches of blood, just visible to the left, give a macabre touch to the painting. While the leg to the right, still bound, seems to be pulled out of the water, showing the ferocity of the fishes feeding.
What was new to Art, was the way he, “captures the horror of the event and terrifying grandeur of nature through hot, churning color and light.” This effect was later called an envellope , by the later Impressionists, and was considered one of their key characteristics. To be able to capture nature on a canvass, so containing the whole event compressed into one scene.
When I was at the gallery, looking at the painting, I decided to do my on site research into what the public thought. Unfortunately, a few told me in no uncertain terms, to leave them alone(or words to that effect), but about half answered. After precising the story, which was also on the plaque, I asked them which version they felt more strongly about?. What I meant by that, was which one upset them most?, the story, or the painting. Everyone of them without fail, said the painting was more emotional. Soon after I started questioning people, I realised I should ask more, and ask the more important question of, “Why?”
For me, this was much more interesting. A few could not explain why, but the majority could, coming out with a variety of answers. Six people said the colours made the painting, for it s mood, or violence. Four, said the figures in the water. Two mentioned the fish, gorging on the bodies, or “Jaws”, approaching from the right. While the rest had different answers, related to the previously mentioned ones, such as the “goriness”.
So the public consensus(God bless them), proved my point, that Art is more powerful than words, unless the words numbered more than a thousand(”A Picture tells a thousand words”, as the saying goes). The painting was not surprisingly, one of Turner s greatest works, so part of England s heritage. However, it is one of the numerous amount of works of Art, the only reason I choose it, was that it was English, and my first choice was by a Frenchman, Degas. Bigotry aside, the painting is more suited to rest in America, where a great many slaves were brought, and died. This painting serves as a reminder to the Afro-American community, of their suffering at the hands of the Whites. But, the painting transcends that, by the fact that the figures in the water are white, as previously mentioned. This again shows the universality of the painting, allowing it to be seen also by the many other Races in America, who through persecution, came here.