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The Slave Ship Essay

3299 words - 14 pages

The nineteenth century art world accurately resonated with the events of its time. Age-old Western traditions and values were questioned and challenged openly in all forms of communication, public and private1. In an age of anti-conformity, societal and intellectual upheavals were common and almost expected. Monarchies met oppositions in the form of a growing faith in democracy and the church lost its respect among believers2. A new age longing for an expression of emotions, free of restraints, emerges as the dominating inspiration for writers, musicians, and artists3. The 1800s art scene was divided in distinct schools of thoughts constantly challenging and responding to one another4. In ...view middle of the document...

A formal analysis of the painting will follow, with arguments from comparing the postcard reproduction of the painting. In addition, my personal experience and response to the painting will be offered in reference to other artists and paintings. Finally, a concluding summary will be presented on the impact and influence of Turner’s artwork in the history of Western art. In this paper, the original art work, The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Tuner, and the postcard reproduction will be thoroughly examined and compared, for discussions in subject observation, artistic insights, and the challenges of reproduction.
Though originally painting calmingly smooth and detailed landscapes, the British artist later turned to the liberal use of striking colors to inspire emotions4. Influenced and inspired by Poussin and Claude, Turner experimented with colors and the depiction of lights in nature7. Inspired by the Zong Massacre, the 1781 mass-killing of African slave on the British slave ship Zong, Turner drew further inspiration from James Thomson’s poem in The Seasons that described the slave ship caught in a typhoon8. Because more slaves were transported on the Zong than allowed by law, the overcrowding, with malnutrition and disease, killed several crew members and slaves7. Seeking compensations for lost cargo, the captain would dispose of the dying slaves to collect drowning insurance. The ship-owners brought civil action against insurance companies, rather than the authorities bring mass-murder charges against the ship-owners. The court proceeding eventually resulted in a landmark court case in the eighteenth century anti-salve trade movement8. Yet, Turner’s The Slave Ship is far from a simple social commentary or historical remembrance. (Slave trade was abolished in 1807 with a fine, and not until twenty years later did slave trade deemed as a crime punishable by death; only in 1833 did all trades ceased and all former slaves freed9.)
One of the most celebrated painting and often the most recognizable among the artist’s later works10, The Slave Ship epitomizes Turner’s revolutionary insight in using colors as a tool for story-telling and invoking emotions. Victorian era art critic John Ruskin would go as far as claiming the painting as Turner’s magnum opus, a single work immortalizing the artist7. The Slave Ship is not only a prime example of Turner’s obsession with the representation of nature with a special focus on the awesome and unnatural happenings11. Through the personal lens inspired by the event and its societal implication, Turner examines the artistic medium’s power in the effect of colors and brush strokes, as well as the overall composition of the painting, to convey the powerful emotions of the incident as wholly as possible. The painting is full of energy, realized through colors, strokes, and composition, while the audience knows the energy is a tragic force, not a glorious depiction, inspiring adoration or veneration to God of the church...

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