Turner's Whalers: "That is not a smear of purple ... but a beautiful whale ... whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition"
Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851). Whalers, ca. 1845. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896
"The animals which inhabit the sea are much less known to us than those found upon land, and the economy of those with which we are best acquainted is much less understood; we are therefore too often obliged to reason from analogy where information fails, which must probably ever continue to be the case, from our unfitness to pursue our researches in the unfathomable waters." — John Hunter
Turner was seventy years old when Whalers debuted to mixed reviews at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1845. Its subject proved elusive, as the English novelist William Thackeray observed: "That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! they turn out to be a ship with all her sails." Apparently Turner undertook the painting — which was returned to him — for the collector Elhanan Bicknell, who had made his fortune in the whale-oil business.
This picture is one of four whaling subjects by Turner; the other three form part of the artist's bequest at Tate Britain, London. The Metropolitan Museum of Art painting and another of the same title were shown at the Royal Academy in 1845, receiving a mixed reception. The third and fourth in the series—"Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!" and Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves — were exhibited the following year.
There are related watercolors on nine pages of Turner’s undated Whalers Sketchbook in the Tate and a separate sheet with a whaling subject is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. While the watercolors are as evocative as the painting, none is closely related in thematic material, and all may in any event be later. In the 1840s, few people in England knew what a sperm whale looked like. Turner may never have seen one and, using the descriptions and illustrations that were available to him, he created these works in part from his imagination, bringing to bear many years' observation of the seas in the Channel and elsewhere along the English coast.
In April 1850, a few months after returning to New York from his first visit to London, Herman Melville ordered a copy of Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale. On the title page, Melville wrote, "Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book", thus documenting that he knew of Turner's paintings, even though he may never have seen them, and that he drew on Beale, as well as his own experience as a sailor and harpooner, when writing Moby-Dick, published in 1851. As Wallace (1985) has suggested, Melville may have had Whalers in mind while describing a picture hanging in the Spouter-Inn in chapter three of Moby-Dick.
The painting, acquired by the Museum in 1896, was relined and cleaned in 1933, and treated again in 1968. The surface is flattened. The ship is considerably abraded, but some of the rigging can still be read. The best-preserved passages are the small boats and figures, the head of the whale, and the dark, choppy surrounding sea. Turner changed the contours of the whale's nose, gradually widening and enlarging the shape. Examination under the microscope reveals the remnants of scumbles associated with the darkest gray pigment that may originally have subdued the contrast between this pigment and the surrounding areas.
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