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Critical Analysis Of The Painting Slave Ship (1840) By William Turner (Essay Sample)


critical analysis of the painting slave ship (1840) by william turner


The Slave Ship, 1840 by Joseph William Turner
The painting “The Slave Ship, 1840, by Joseph William Turner depicts the convergence of nature’s and man’s cruelty. The dominant image and what captures one’s attention at first in the painting is the orange and deep-red sunset. There is a sailing ship in the background and to the left, indicating that the painting is a depiction of sunset on sea. In the foreground there are images of objects floating on the water. The most visible and distinguishable images are the dark shapes bound with even darker robs or chins. On closer scrutiny, the dark shapes bound with chains are human hands and legs. The dark color of their skin suggests that they ate black people, perhaps African slaves. There are also what appear to be sea creatures circling around the human figures, suggesting that it could be fish and other sea monsters feeding on dead human bodies. Because the figures are in the foreground and the ship in the background, it shows that the ship is sailing away from the bodies, suggesting that the bodies were probably thrown from the ship.
Historical Context
Slave Ship, 1840 was first exhibited in London in 1840, during an anti-slavery convention in which the crown of England Prince Albert was scheduled to speak (Haehnel & Ulz, 2010, p. 127). At the time slavery had been abolished in England and in all its colonies. Turner exhibited the painting with the hope that it would inspire those in attendance to be more vocal in calling for the abolishment of slavery around the world. In this regard, slavery and the antislavery movement is the historical context within which the Turner’s work can be placed. Turner had also read The History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson, which depicted a real incident from 1783 when the captain of the ship Zong ordered all sick slaves on the ship to be thrown overboard so that his company would collect the insurance money (Halloran, 2009, p. 57). The cruelty of this incidence and the ongoing slave trade-especially in the Americas- must have inspired Turner to make a literary and political statement condemning it.
In interpreting the painting, the depiction of the ocean filled with man-eating creatures, and a ship throwing off bound human bodies portrays the cruelty of man and the nature (May, 2014). It shows how man is helpless when fellow men show cruelty on the one hand, and Mother Nature claims them for food for sea creatures. What is striking, however, is the juxtaposition of the beauty of sunset with human cruelty. Turner shows that nature is in itself beautiful, but it is made ugly by the sins of man. This is more so the case considering that Turner painted the work during the Romanticist period, when artists celebrated the beauty of nature, the power of imagination and portrayals of sensuous images. Thus, Turner could have been protesting at the way man was ruining the beauty of life and nature by being inhuman and cruel to fellow man.
When Turner exhibited the work, he included lines from his unpublished poetry, which read:
“The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chainsHope, Hope, fallacious Hope!Where is thy market now?"
These lines are not just about the actions depicted in the painting, but an attack on capitalism (Wood, 2000, p. 74). The fact that capitalism was the major factor that promoted slavery is well documented by history. In the quest to maximize profits in the pre-industrial revolution era, merchants would go to any extents to acquire cheap labor to work in the plantations. This is because world economy before the industrial revolution of the 19th century was dependent on agriculture. It was for this reason that black people mainly from West Africa- given its proximity to South America where the world’s major powers had their plantations- were hounded and shipped to provide free labor. When Turner concluded the poem with line “Where is thy market now?” he is mocking the capitalist merchants for enslaving, impoverishing, and decimating the population of the people who would provide the market for produced commodities.
Finally, the painting is relevant to the modern audience because it depicts issues that still affect society. The painting portrays the human society as a man-eat-man society because of the way one race dominated another race, colonized and enslaved it, robbing generations of their livelihoods by forcefully taking their land and making them serva...
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