Turner’s Slave Ship

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Mallord, Joseph In 1840, William Turner produced a painting titled "The Slave Ship." This artwork depicts a one-of-a-kind combination of creative passion and leisure. Looking at this piece of painting, it appears that a ship is sailing through a storm in heavy waters. At first sight, the eye is drawn to the background, where the sun is setting, illuminating the sky with a stunning color mix. After taking in the deep colors of the sky, the eye is drawn to the mid-ground ahead of the ship. The white-capped waves produce a spray that engulfs the ship, as though hands reached out and overpowering it. Again, when observing the ship, the water in the foreground catches the eye. It is clear and visible that there are some things in the water though they are not defined. One is horrified instantly when they learn that those things they see in the water are human limbs with some sea creatures feeding on them (Turner, 1840).

A human leg can be seen sticking out of the water can be seen at the corner on the lower right-hand side. A shackle can also be seen around the ankle. The other end of the leg is just flailing about. The best-defined thing in the painting is this leg and even is modeled using mid-tones and shadows. The rest of the body is evidently submerged in the water, and one cannot escape the nauseous feeling thinking about the mangled state of the corpse. There is a group of fish, most probably piranhas, attacking the visible leg, while some larger fish and seagulls are also approaching. One would think that the sea is violently churning due to the carnivorous nature of the sea creatures while even the birds are rapidly diving in an attempt to rip bits of flesh for themselves. The sea seems agitated on one side where there is a typhoon fast approaching and calm on the other side where the sun setting reflects off it. There are other things in the foreground moving up and down with the sea, and though not distinct, they look like human hands.

One aspect that is interesting is that the space in the paint is very deep. It is a feature achieved using some cues. The ship appears at the mid-ground due to its relative position to the ground line while the leg which is shackled appears in the foreground. The sun’s light is distorted and warped by the atmosphere and clouds making the background a whirl of color. The sun is indistinct and scattered primarily due to the atmospheric interference. The blurred horizon adds a sense of depth to the art. The composition of this painting is different from other landscapes that are romantic which shows the serenity and beauty of nature. The sunset painted by Turner is beautiful, but the rest of the painting shows nature’s unforgiving destruction and raw power.

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The painting was done in 1840 in Britain. It was during this period that Britain was trying to eradicate slave trade. The abolition of the slave trade had already taken place in 1833. It was in this context that Turner painted this picture that showed how savage humans could be to fellow humans. This work is evidently based on an event that took place in 1783. The captain of Zong, a slave ship, decided to throw overboard more than 50 sick or dead slaves overboard just to claim insurance (Facos, 2011). Zong was carrying slaves from Africa and taking them to Liverpool and owners of the ship would only be compensated for “cargo lost at sea.” However, if the slaves just died during transit in the sea, they received no compensation. The only major difference between the art and the actual event is that there was no typhoon in the actual event.

This event was recorded in a book called “History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade” published in 1808 by Thomas Clarkson. Turner had friends in the Anti-Slavery Society and may have read about the incident when the book was republished in 1839. By the time Turner completed his painting, Britain had already abolished slavery in its colonies by passing a law in 1833. The law was to abolish slave trade by 1840 completely but did this by 1838. The visitors who first viewed Turner’s Slave Ship, then called “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and the dying – Typhon coming,” viewed the painting with a sense of self-satisfaction rather than a sense of guilt (Facos, 2017). Slaves, at the time, provided cheap or free labor to the Europeans making them reap huge profits from their colonies through collecting raw materials which would be processed in Europe. Turner’s painting symbolized a disgraceful chapter in Britain’s past.

Turner first showed his drawing talent by drawing with his finger on spilled milk on a tea tray. At the age of twelve years, his father had started putting up his paintings in the window of his shop where he was a barber. Turner liked to paint famous spots of beauty or watercolored people’s homes, and they sold well at the time since photography had not been invented. His father would later stop working as a barber and start helping him in his painting studio. He was his studio assistant until his death in 1829, eighty-four years old. Turner was not a showman and liked his private life kept private. Royal Academy Schools admitted Turner when they saw his painting of Radley Hall. At 24 years, 1799, he became an Associate of the Royal Academy. It wasn’t until 1802 when he became a full member of the Royal Academies. Turner was fairly rich, and by the time he was 24 years old, he had accumulated a significant sum of money. Since he did not keep his money in the bank, he usually invested it on shares and part of it on buying property.

Turner had a reputation for being mean and generous at the same time. Mrs. Booth, who had lived with him in his final years claimed that Turner did not spend anything on her for the first two years after they had met. He was however generous especially to those who owed him rent. Also, Turner did not like his appearance and thought that he was ugly. In his only portrait of himself in 1798, he positioned himself well to hide the features of his face that he thought were not good. Turner was neither cold nor hard, but people often mistook him for having a cold and hard demeanor. It is because either tongue-tied or reserved when at many times. Turner was usually tongue-tied since he was ill-educated and would at times be laughed at when he gave mumbled lectures as a Professor at Royal Academy.

Turner was born on 23rd April 1775in Covent Garden. Turner’s father made fairly enough, and they would not consider themselves poor. He had a sister called Mary Ann who died when she was five and him only eight years old. When Turner was 24 years, his mother was diagnosed as mad and was hospitalized until her death in 1804. At the time, mad people were treated as criminals and even in were tortured or killed in hospitals. Turner had an unhappy childhood, and this made him spend some of his time at sea with his mother’s relatives. It introduced him to the sea and the country but also disrupted his learning. Turner lived in places that were close to water, and he came to love the sea. Turner’s background may have influenced his paintings, especially the Slave Ship. Despite the fact that the Slave Ship was inspired by an event that had taken place in the previous century, it also reflected Turner’s childhood. Slave Ship painting is a picture that shows humans being savage on their fellow human beings. This is the experience his mother passed through, and he even painted a painting of his mother caged in a hospital after her incarceration. Also, being laughed upon by others and even by his looks, Turner may have put himself in the shoes of the slaves that were being treated as ‘cargo’ rather than humans. Even after painting such an excellent painting, the press still ridiculed it calling the beautiful blend of color in the sky as a “passionate extravagance of the marigold sky.” He was often mocked by critics as he was easily misunderstood since he always aimed at recreating rather than representing.

The slave ship is a painting that measures 90.8 x 122.6 centimeters and is now found at Boston, in the Museum of Fine Arts. The Slave Ship is done using oil paint that helps him achieve a smeared effect since the strokes of the brush tend to fuse. The impasto technique of quickly applying the oil paint allows the creation of sunlight. Brushstrokes are evident and strong implying the boldness and power of nature’s anger. Turner’s choice of colors implies Turner’s will to capture realistic effects. At the time, most artists used oil paint to paint their paintings. Turner’s Slave Ship painting is also infused with the powerful awe of symbolism and nature. Analyzing it, the sunset can be considered to symbolize that it is time for the final judgment. The slave trade was being fought by anti-slavery activists, and it was coming to an end. The sky behind the ship is painted red which can be seen to symbolize the bold on the sailor’s hands. The masts of the ships are usually upright, but in the painting, they are tilted as the sip takes on the violent waves. This could signify that the ship is weak, vulnerable and will probably meet its downfall. The Slave Ship brings out mixed feelings. There is justice in a predicament the ship is facing but a horrifying injustice in what the African slaves are going through. However, there is a feeling of abandonment by both parties. The slaves feel abandonment by the support of their fellow human beings while the sailor may be feeling abandoned by the God’s protection especially because of the violent typhoon approaching the ship.

Turner’s painting contains qualities found in other history paintings. It is evident that it shows a historical occurrence though not accurate on the actual events. One of the qualities of historical paintings at the neoclassical time was that they had multiple people. In this painting, though there are no people that can be seen on the ship, there are body parts of multiple people that can be seen bobbing with the sea. Historical paintings are known for their large-scale size, but the Slave Ship is quite small as compared to any other maritime historical work. Another quality of the historical painting is that the people were classically-modeled. In the Slave Ship, the leg is classically-modeled since there are no other people top model. Most of the historical paintings were didactic, and so is this one. It scorns the sailors showing them that evil is always punished by nature.


This painting evokes deep emotions even when viewed by the audience today when one comprehends the horrors that the slaves had to go through. Many people feel hatred towards the slavers and sympathize with the helpless slaves who were overthrown overboard still in chains (Boime, 1990). Some people even feel implicated in the situation the slaves find themselves in. In New York, the pain had to be removed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1870’s as people were so horrified by it. Viewing it evokes the feeling of helplessness and terror before man’s atrocities against others and the unforgiving nature. This photo is significant and is sure to have played a part in the in the abolitionist movement.

Carrying out an analysis of this piece of art impacts one with knowledge about the slave trade. The slave trade was a trade where Africans were kidnapped by their fellow Africans and sold to the Europeans and Americans. The slaves were treated as lesser human beings and were mistreated by their masters. The Slave ship just shows how the slaves were treated being massively tortured by people with no remorse. However, this painting also offers hope even for the slaves. Despite the sealed fate of the slaves, the ship is heading into a typhoon. It is not immediately known the fate of the ship, but all indicators show that the ship’s fate is grim. Turner, who had friends in the anti-slavery movement, believed that the slave trade was coming to an end. This masterpiece teaches us to stand up against oppression to fellow human beings.

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Boime, A. (1990). Turner's Slave Ship: The Victims of Empire'. Turner Studies, 10(1), 34-43.

Facos, M. (2011). An introduction to nineteenth-century art. Taylor & Francis.

Turner, J. M. W. (1840). Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On. painting is exhibited in London.

August 18, 2021

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