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Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Whalers” (1845), oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 48 1/4 in (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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.

Installation view of ‘Turner’s Whaling Pictures’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (1846), oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 47 1/2 ½ inches (courtesy the Tate, London) (click to enlarge)

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.

Installation view of ‘Turner’s Whaling Pictures’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Whalers” (1845), oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 48 in (courtesy the Tate, London)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “The Whale on Shore” (1837), watercolor on paper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Whale oil lamps on view in ‘Turner’s Whaling Pictures’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset” (1845), watercolor and graphite, with black chalk, on paper, 9 1/8 x 13 1/8 in (courtesy the Morgan Library and Museum)

Installation view of ‘Turner’s Whaling Pictures’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Installation view of ‘Turner’s Whaling Pictures’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Turner’s Whaling Pictures continues through August 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

6 replies on “J.M.W. Turner’s Unloved Late Paintings; or, The Whales”

  1. It’s a pity that Ms. Meier found nothing other than the Turners to interest her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose collections cover virtually all of human history. Does she really have no interest in Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, Veronese, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Krasner, or Rothko, to name just a few in the painting galleries? Not to mention Rodin, masterpieces of African and Meso-American art, the Egyptian Temple of Dendur … well, the list could go on. Poor woman! Perhaps she should take a guided tour and learn how to open her eyes.
    – Marjorie Heins (disclosure: I’m a Highlights Tour guide at the Met)

    1. Marjorie, You may be unaware that Allison regularly writes about all aspects the Met, so your comment doesn’t make sense for those of us who have been reading her regularly. If you’re new to her work, that’s great! I’m sure you’ll love it. Thanks for commenting.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Hrag. But if Allison writes regularly about the Met, it’s even more mysterious that she should say she found nothing of interest in its galleries!

    2. Marjorie, I was making a direct reference to the introduction to Moby-Dick:

      Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

      1. Aha – thank you Alison! Obviously, I didn’t get the reference (even with your hint in the second paragraph). But I believe many others didn’t catch it as well — or (I assume) your intended irony vis a vis the Met. The perils of erudition!

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