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Turner, Slave Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Speakers: Lori Landay & Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Margaret Smith
    How can something so beautiful can be so disturbing.
    (12 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user R3hall
      I think that was the tool intended. It's a similar strategy used by horror movie producers: use what we have generally come to consider beautiful & innocent, then show the macabre nature/side of it for a real shock effect. The sun, sky, and sea provide a stark contrast to the slave ship, showing more distinctly the evils of the now-mostly-defunct-institution of slavery.
      (9 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    This is an amazing painting for what it tells us as the viewers about the power of the title (the actual title of the painting). Frankly, I think if this was named something to the effect of "fishing vessel" or "storm near dawn"...we would all view the work incredibly differently. I look around the frenetic yet beautiful painting and I don't think it is easy to make out the image of bodies...I think that if viewers less experienced perhaps than true art historians were to look at this painting that perhaps the "horrible" details of the dying people would have been overlooked...

    I wonder about which choices (including the naming of the work) were deliberate and to what degree? I wonder as well what Turner's intentions were within the framework of those choices?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Evey Pickle
    are you sure Beth Harris is not Winona Ryder?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mihiri
    By any chance was the creation of Pirates of the Carribean and the character Will Turner based on this? Also, is there a way to tell what type of slaves or slaves from where they were carrying based on the images of those drowning such as slaves from the coast of Africa?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Anastasia Petrosky
    What are the formal qualities of the painting?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mez Cooper
    Why did they have to die to collect insurance in those times?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The slaves were not considered to be people, but property. They were insured as property. If the property was lost (died in transport), the insurance company would pay. If the property did not die, the insurance company kept the money it was paid to take the insurance risk, and the property could be sold for a profit by the traders.
      (1 vote)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Mengyuan Chen
    Ruskin's words are just so appealing to me...... Even his critics could not ignore "the way he says so".
    (1 vote)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Michael Orozco
    At , what could that white thing be underneath the slave ship? At first i thouth it was a wave spashing but it look way to different from the rest of waves.
    (1 vote)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user maddie_petry
    Could you say this piece uses sfumato?
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user yenfu
    Which poem is the painting based on? (At ) According to Wiki: J.M.W. Turner was inspired to paint The Slave Ship in 1840 after reading The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. This event probably inspired Turner to create his landscape and to choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. So, was it also inspired by actual event?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Ally Patterson
      This is not based on a poem but rather J.M.W. Turner was interested in the 1781 event that occurred and is written about in The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade. Although the painting was not based on a poem, Turner did present an unpublished and unfinished poem along with the unveiling of the painting.
      (0 votes)

Video transcript

(piano music) >> Lori Landay: We're standing in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in front of what we know as Turner's "Slave Ship," but the full title of this work is "Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)." >> Beth Harris: When we first come across this painting, it looks really beautiful. It's got oranges and reds, and we see that typical Turner sunset. We're lost in the thick sensuality of the paint. >> Lori: But then, my eye goes to the bottom right-hand corner, and, in a moment of horror, I see a foot and a leg and a shackle in chains, and all of a sudden, it's not a seascape, and it's not about a sunset, and it's not about light on the water, or not only about those things anymore. >> Beth: There is real carnage right in front of us, in fact, in the closest part of the painting towards us. We're looking at an image of a slave ship that we can see in the distance. This is a ship carrying slaves, and a typhoon has come on. This is based on a poem, but we know that this something that happened in reality and not just once but many times. With the storm coming, the captain of this ship decided to throw the slaves overboard. Apparently, that was the only way you could collect the insurance. If the slaves died of illness or other things while on board, the captain of the ship couldn't claim insurance. So what he has done is he's thrown the slaves overboard, and that's what we see happening. >> Lori: It is really horrifying. We only see parts of their bodies, and there is a swirl of waves and colors. Again, there is this mixture of the beauty of nature, the power of nature, and this horrific human act that is within the context of a much wider horrific human act of slavery. We do have this sense of divine retribution, the storm coming for that slave ship that's been dealing in human lives, and the punishment wreaked by nature is justified on that ship, but there is also a sense of the total indifference of nature because the same storm that's going to overcome that slave ship is also going to drown the slaves themselves. >> Lori: Nature is completely indifferent to the human endeavors, whether they are good, evil, otherwise, whatever. >> Beth: The first owner of this painting was the great Victorian art critic, John Ruskin. Then the painting made its way to Boston to an abolitionist, to someone who believed in and struggled for the ending of slavery. Now, the British had outlawed slavery in 1833 in the colonies; the French do it in their colonies 15 years later, but of course, in America, slavery isn't outlawed until the Civil War. Slavery, we have to remember, is still a really active political cause at this moment. This idea that human beings could do this to each other, not just in the form of actual slavery, of buying and selling human beings, but also in terms of taking advantage of one another just for the sake of money. Of course, that's the kernel of this hideous act that the captain engages in here. >> Lori: When we look into the left border of the painting, we see some really different colors than what we see in the rest of the painting, whites and blues and purples and grays. >> Beth: Ruskin wrote, "Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers "are cast upon the mist of night, "which gathers cold and low, "advancing like the shallow of death upon the guilty ship, "as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, "its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood." (piano music)