Beyond Gobbledigook

Joseph William Turner. The Slave Ship, 1840. Oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Posted in Oil on canvas by Jessica on June 2, 2009

Joseph William Turner. The Slave Ship, 1840. Oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Joseph Turner was a Romantic landscape painter obsessed with depicting the sea/ocean in times of violence or destruction. And in this painting, he was showing slaves being thrown overboard when crossing the Atlantic Ocean during the 18th century. It is said that Turner was inspired by two things–the Zong Massacre and James Thomson’s poem, The Seasons.

I remember seeing this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts and being so completely struck by the rough brushstrokes. It’s so easy to simply “get lost” in this painting with all the colors and figures of bodies. The light of the sun emerging from the background is so serene and beautiful that it starkly contrasts with the dead bodies in the foreground.

A few weeks later, after I had already forgot about this painting, I read about it in Gombrich’s The Story of Art for my art history class. The painting, printed in a book, had no effect on me. I had no recollection of seeing it in person and I actually thought the painting was bland. I just read through the text quickly and moved on to the next page.

So, when going through my iPhoto, and seeing a photo of this painting, I was kind of embarrassed. Mostly because I had “liked” this painting so much in person and then dismissed it in print. But then it just reminded me the great difference between seeing a work in person versus in print. The museum, the other paintings surrounding it, and being able to see it up close, to see the textures, the size, the real colors, makes such an impact.


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