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Turner's Slave Ship.

Slave Ship is one of Turner's most celebrated works. In it, the artist tells a dramatic story in an unusual way--not through a wealth of detail but through his rendering of a violent storm at sea. He manipulated color, light, and paint, more for their emotional and expressive impact than for their ability to describe.

When Turner painted Slave Ship in 1840, the slave trade had been abolished throughout the British Empire, but it was still a thriving practice in other European countries and the United States. Turner based his painting on a notorious event that took place more than fifty years earlier, in 1783. The English slave ship, Zong, traveling from Africa to Jamaica with a cargo of slaves, lost its way. Illness swept the ship; sixty slaves and seven crew members died. Because many of the remaining slaves were sick, the captain felt sure that more would die on the voyage and the weakened survivors would fetch low prices in Jamaica. Therefore, he ordered 132 slaves to be shackled and thrown into the sea, reasoning that he could claim insurance money for drowned slaves but not for those who died of sickness. The one slave who escaped brought the appalling story back to England. The Zong's captain failed to collect insurance money for the "lost" slaves, but he was not prosecuted for his crime.

Looking at the Painting

Despite the complexity of the story that inspired it, there is little narrative detail in Slave Ship. We see the ship, but it is a ghost ship, obscured by waves and foam. The limbs and chains of the victims are barely visible at the bottom of the canvas. We would never be able to tell the story by looking at the painting, but it is clear that something terrible is happening.

Most of Slave Ship is given over to sky and sea--elements that have no tangible form. Turner has rendered these elements almost entirely through light and extraordinary hot oranges, pinks, and yellows, played off against areas of rich blue and gray. The sun--a rounded white blob flattened with a palette knife--is the physical and visual center of the painting.

Response to Slave Ship

At the time of its first exhibition in 1840, and for decades afterwards, this painting startled and bewildered critics and the public. Viewers objected to the way Turner told the story--or failed to tell it--and to his radical, even violent, brushwork and color. American author Mark Twain wrote that the painting reminded him of "a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes." Many people, to this day, are troubled by the difficulty of reconciling the beauty of the painting with its tragic subject. How can you say "What a gorgeous painting!" when you know what it represents?

Four years after it was painted, Slave Ship was give to young John Ruskin, who later became an influential British art critic and writer, by his father. In his book, Modern Painters, Ruskin called Slave Ship "the noblest sea that Turner ever painted ... and if so, the noblest certainly ever painted by man." "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work," Ruskin declared, "I should choose this." He owned it for 28 years and then, in 1872, he sold it to a collector in New York. "I think as highly of it as a work of art as I ever did," Ruskin explained. "I part with the picture because, as I grow old, I grow sad, and cannot endure anything near me either melancholy or violently passionate." The painting was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1899.

The Artist

Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest landscape painters in the history of Western art. He was immensely prolific and worked with equal mastery in oil and watercolor. He also produced many engravings for books that ranged from compilations of scenic views to poetry. Turner's surviving work includes nearly 2,000 paintings and finished watercolors, plus thousands of prints, 260 bound sketchbooks, and close to twenty thousand individual sketches in pencil and watercolor. Slave Ship was painted in 1840 when Turner was 65 and his style was at its freest and most innovative.

Questions about Meaning

What moment in the historical event did Turner show in his painting? Why do you think he chose to represent the story in this way?

Turner has imagined for us a moment in the middle of the story. He lets glimpses of hands and feet signal the underwater presence of individuals who are sinking. This allows each viewer to fill in the rest of the story, and feel more of a personal connection. Do you think the view of nature depicted here enhances or detracts from the power of the human tragedy of the event?

Some students may think the fiery sunset and agitated sea are in keeping with the cruelty of the event, while others may think the beauty of the seascape masks the victims' suffering.

Why do you think Turner chose to paint this terrifying event? Turner often used the natural world to express human emotions and capture dramatic human events. By the time this picture was painted, slavery had been abolished in England but was still a thriving practice in much of Europe, the United States, and many other parts of the world.

Key Concepts/Themes

This painting invites viewers to confront contradictory ideas about what art should be. Is the purpose of art to allow the viewer to escape from the everyday routine through the contemplation of something beautiful? Or should art confront the viewer with difficult issues and powerful emotions? Can it do both at the same time?


Boime, Albert. "Turner's Slave Ship: The Victims of Empire", in Turner Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, Summer 1990, pp. 34-44.

Hewison, Robert. Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery, 2000.


High School

Making emotions real.

Turner's Slave Ship incorporates naturalistic and symbolic elements to make a powerful statement. Using the story and imagery of this painting to focus discussion, develop with your students definitions for naturalistic and symbolic representation.

Have your students develop images of three objects that hold meaning for them. Once the images are complete, have students transfer the images into a naturalistic environment that supports and enhances their meaning.

Middle School

What's next? Storyboards.

Turner's painting tells a story about the treatment of slaves in the mid1800s. Use the painting as the center panel for visual narratives.

Discuss with students how the art elements and natural environment depicted in Turner's painting support the story it tells.

Brainstorm with students how such a story might begin and end, and how images in series (like comic book illustration or video episodes) are different from single images.

Have students create 1-2 panels that precede and follow the event in Turner's painting. Encourage students to invent their own stories and to illustrate the natural environment (sea, ground, and sky) present in their stories.


Create your own environment.

Explore Turner's Slave Ship by asking students what they think is going on in the painting. Ask them what they see, and might hear, smell, and feel; how might it feel if they were in the painting?

Have students complete a color drawing of themselves as the central figure in a picture with a story-line they create from the following: I was walking (select one of each): in the woods, grass, hills, park, on the beach, down the street.

It was: morning, afternoon, evening, nighttime.

It was: sunny, rainy, windy, snowy And I saw

Gilian Shallcross is senior lecturer in the Department of Education and Public Programs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Dorothy Amore Pilla is director of art education for Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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Author:Pilla, Dorothy Amore
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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