Some days ago — never mind the count — having not much purpose in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and nothing in its galleries otherwise to interest me, I thought I would wander a little and found myself in the most watery part of the institution. There the sea rolled in haunting billows and from the luminous brushstrokes of J. M. W. Turner arose the mighty distinctive bulk of the leviathan, the staggering whale itself.
Turner’s Whaling Pictures has, in its one-room array, the four canvases on which Turner attempted to capture “that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last,” as Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). (The first lines of which this author poorly borrows above.) The exhibition is the first to join the four paintings, each a tumultuous scene of floundering sperm whale hunts, the whalers’ boats tossed on rumbling waves where, sometimes, just perceptible in the riotous scenes, the silhouettes of the desperate prey appear.
Nineteenth-century viewers of these paintings, created by Turner when he was in his 70s and exhibited between 1845 and 1846 at London’s Royal Academy, were baffled by the impressionistic style, which had the English painter’s famed light and reach for the sublime, but were more chaotic.
According to the Tate, which holds three of the four paintings, a cartoon in the Almanack of the Month reflects the mocking reception with which the works were met. Turner is shown painting with a mop and an alternative title for “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” is offered: “Hallo there! — the oil and vinegar, — another lobster salad.”
Poor Turner didn’t even have luck selling them off to whale oil mogul Elhanan Bicknell, who apparently took one home, only to be dismayed at the lowly watercolor marring the work. He reportedly smeared the offending mixed media off with his handkerchief, returned the painting to Turner, and even after oil paint alterations would not buy it. Turner only sold one — the “Whalers” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, acquired 120 years ago — and the rest went to Tate through a bequest upon his death in 1851.
Melville faced his own battles for the acceptance of his nautical tome, which received negative reviews and only achieved success posthumously. Turner’s Whaling Pictures links the two in their reliance on Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale as a source (Turner likely never saw a live whale), and the possibility that Melville heard of Turner’s work while he was writing his book. The exhibition could also have linked them for their boisterous attempts to excite the public with the drama of the whale chase.
Alongside the four paintings, a harpoon on loan from the South Street Seaport Museum hangs above a display of antique whale oil lamps, their fuel extracted from the cumbersome corpses of ill-fated cetaceans. Whales were a late interest for Turner, his first known illustrations being 1830s watercolors, although he’d long been fond of shipwrecks and the wrathful destruction of the huge creatures fit with his vision of an ocean at once beautiful and dangerous. In an early chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael views a painting which could have been painted by Turner, with such “unaccountable masses of shades and shadows.” In “all these fancies,” the viewer finally “yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst … . But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?”
Maybe Melville never saw a whale as depicted by Turner, all blurred shadows haunting the more distinct ships, but he’s the audience the artist deserved. Even in the Romantic stylings of the painting is a suggestion of the mortal risks undertaken by the “blubber-hunters” in their attempt to spear this giant of the deep, whose mouth Melville once described as opening “beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb.” And in each painting, as in the final scene of Moby-Dick, rolls that sea like a great shroud.