Visual arts

Kimbell to Explore Controversial “Slave Ship” Painting by JMW Turner at Online Conference

On January 14, the Kimbell Art Museum will premiere an online lecture by two world experts from the 19th century, exploring one of the most important paintings of the Romantic period.

At first glance, JMW Turner’s best-known work seems to be another dramatic example of a romantic maritime painting:

It is only on closer inspection that the viewer realizes that the painting depicts a terrible human tragedy: a human leg emerges from the water in the lower right, where sea birds and fish are already swarming around. of the drowning victim, preparing to feed the body. In the middle left, several more hands shoot out of the water, while other drowning victims sink below the surface.

But it was only after taking a closer look – seeing the cuffed ankle on the right and the other iron chains falling into the water – and reading the full title of the painting, that all the horror of the scene becomes apparent. The drowned in the foreground were captives aboard the slave ship visible in the distance; they were thrown overboard to their deaths as the ship fled from the oncoming typhoon.

Turner’s sublime painting from 1840, titled Slave ship (the slaves throwing the dead and dying overboard, the typhoon is coming), shows the sheer cruelty, monstrous inhumanity of the slave traders aboard the ship in the distance, as well as nature’s terrifying indifference to human existence, in the form of the typhoon that is about to destroy vessel. Viewers are compelled to examine their own reactions to the events unfolding in the picture.

From his first exhibition in 1840, the combination of the painting’s natural beauty and moral message sparked controversy. While the great critic John Ruskin (who owned the painting for 28 years) called it “the best work that has been done in Europe since Sir Joshua Reynolds”, others have focused on the frenetic energy of the painting and its sound. apparent physical impossibility (for example, iron chains floating in water) and concluded that it was the work of a madman. William Makepeace Thackeray concluded: “Is the painting sublime or ridiculous? Indeed, I don’t know which, ”while Mark Twain wrote,“ Most of the picture is an obvious impossibility, that is, a lie.

George TM Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum, was president of European art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when the decision was made to end the traveling career of the famous JMW Turner.(Nan Coulter / Special Contributor)

More recently, postcolonial critics have accused Turner’s presentation of aesthetic beauty masking an indifference, or worse, to the plight of drowning victims. Turner, a long poem from 1994 by David Dabydeen of Guyana, accuses the painter of a sadistic attitude towards his drowning subjects.

Alex Farquharson, director of the Tate Britain gallery and chairman of the Turner Prize committee named after the painter, recently warned the public: “We shouldn’t idolize Turner. His investment in 1805 in a Jamaican cattle ranch operated by slaves suggests that he had reset his own moral compass in 1840 when he painted Slave ship as an indictment of the slave trade ”, adding for good measure that Turner’s portrayals of steam power must be seen in light of Britain’s responsibility for climate change due to the revolution. industrial.

The painting has been in Boston since 1876, belonging first to a wealthy liberal family of abolitionist sympathies, and then, since 1899, to the city’s Museum of Art. Although Turner Modern world will leave the Kimbell and visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in March, Slave ship the painting, unfortunately, did not come to the Kimbell for the show (nor to the Tate, where the show opened before coming to the Kimbell). In fact, he hasn’t traveled since 1999, when a study found that additional transportation would endanger the artwork.

George TM Shackelford, who is now Deputy Director of The Kimbell, and who is responsible for the Fort Worth presentation of Turner’s Modern world, was president of European art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when the decision was made to end the traveling career of painting. “Everyone would love to borrow it,” he says, but the work is just too fragile. So, he says, “the exhibition is coming.”

Although the North Texas public does not have the chance to see Slave ship in person, painting is so central to the 19th century, and so morally difficult, that the Kimbell presents a lecture entirely devoted to painting. James Walvin, specialist in the history of British transatlantic slavery, and Nancy Scott, specialist in 19th century painting, will jointly explore Slave ship and what it says to modern viewers. Although art lovers may like to lose themselves in pure aesthetic contemplation, Turner’s painting insists that we must at the same time reflect on good and evil, and the role of art in relation to l moral injustice.


Nancy Scott, professor of fine arts at Brandeis University, and James Walvin, professor emeritus of history at York University, will speak on “Turner’s Slave ship: ‘Written on the sky in lines of blood, belted with condemnation’, January 14 at 6 pm. The first online is free on YouTube; no registration is required. For more information, visit The talk will be available on YouTube ( after the date of the event.

“Turner’s Modern World” is on view through February 6 at the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. Special exhibition fee $ 18; discounts for children, students and seniors. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. on Friday; from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. 817-332-8451,