ARTH-102: Introduction to Art History 2
April 17, 2015
President Lincoln, The purpose of this paper is to persuade you, a man who has helped abolish slavery in the United States, to purchase The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner. Included in my persuasion will be the history of The Slave Ship, and why Turner chose to depict slavery in his work the way that he did. While this painting followed cultural trends of landscape paintings, I will explain the distinctive characteristics about this work that makes it so unique. The Slave Ship, at the time, was one of the most instrumental works of art that influenced ideas of the abolition of slavery in the United States. The Slave Trade is an appropriate purchase for a man of your involvement in the abolition of slavery because not only is this a unique painting that followed cultural trends of landscape paintings, but this work was just as monumental to the abolition of the slavery in United States as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was. The Slave Ship, by J.M.W Turner, is an English landscape painting produced during the romanticism. Unlike other landscape artist tendencies, J.M.W. Turner chooses to depict nature with all of his senses. This can be seen in the awesome use of swirling colors and slightly abstract feel to The Slave Ship.1 In The Slave Ship, Turner uses his feelings and his emotions to paint the landscape. This was different from other artists at the time that simply replicated a particular scene of nature. At first glance, this painting seems to depict one of the most terrifying, yet beautiful, scenes in nature; the moment just before a gargantuan storm hits. At closer inspection however, a gruesome scene of slaves drowning in the ocean seems to take over the canvas. Behind this sublime scene is a historical event that occurred in 1783. After an epidemic had broke out on a slave ship, the captain ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard. This was because the captain’s insurance would only pay for slaves that drowned at sea.2
J.M.W. Turner was born into a family of financial stability.3 This gave him the freedom to create his own works of art without receiving commissions. Without having an outside influence on his work, Turner had the ability to create art with topics that appealed to his beliefs. Because Turner liked to travel, he captured these experiences through paintings. Turner had learned to master the landscape style paintings through his many journeys. From many of his works, it is obvious to see that most of Turner’s experiences of traveling occurred at sea. This gave Turner the tools he needed to master oceanic landscape paintings. Turner’s style was innovative in that he incorporated the abstract, experienced feelings and emotions he felt towards a particular scene of nature in the landscape he was painting. In a way, Turner created real landscapes in an abstract way.
J.M.W. Turner submitted The Slave Ship to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1840.4 Turner’s choice of subject matter was very controversial due to the recent abolition of the slave-trade and slavery in Britain, as well as the rising abolition movement in the United States. Mark Twain showed his displeasure with this work when he noted that Turner dared to disfigure one of the most glorious aspects of nature by the introduction of one of the most hideous crimes.5 At the time, slavery as well as the slave-trade had just recently been abolished in Britain. This put pressure on the United States to abolish slavery as well. Turner’s inspiration for The Slave Ship came from James Thompson’s The Seasons, and Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade.6 The recent abolition of slavery as well as the slave-trade in Britain, and rising abolition movement in the United States, gave Turner the perfect opportunity to expose the gruesomeness of the slavery.
Around the same time that