Turner's Whaling Pictures, opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 10, will be the first exhibition to unite the series of four whaling scenes painted by the great British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) near the end of his career. The quartet of paintings—comprising
The Met's Whalers (ca. 1845) and its three companions from Tate Britain—were among the last seascapes exhibited by Turner, for whom marine subjects were a creative mainstay. The topic of whaling resonated with some of Turner's favorite themes: modern maritime labor, Britain's global naval empire, human ambition and frailty, and the awe-inspiring power of nature termed the Sublime.
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
Shown in pairs at the Royal Academy in London in 1845 and 1846, the whaling canvases confounded critics with their "tumultuous surges" of brushwork and color, which threatened to obscure the motif; yet the pictures earned admiration for the brilliance and vitality of their overall effects.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851Whalers
Date Exhibited 1845
Oil paint on canvas
From the Tate: This is the first of two whaling subjects Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1845 (followed by two more in 1846), probably painted in the hope of selling them to his patron Elhanan Bicknell, an investor in the whaling industry.
The four pictures were inspired by Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), with this painting based on an account of the pursuit of a whale in the North Pacific. At the right the creature has been harpooned and is bleeding, while men in three boats stand with their arms raised to strike again.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves
Date Exhibited 1846
Oil paint on canvas
From the Tate: The last of Turner’s whaling paintings shows the boiling of blubber for processing into oil. The creature laid out on the ice at the right of the picture may have been based on a whale caught in the Thames in 1842, as well as on images by other artists.
As the title makes clear, the success of the whalers is threatened by the frozen water. A reference to this incident is made in the companion to this painting which shows the Erebus, a boat the Admiralty had promised, but failed, to send to rescue ships trapped in the ice.
Turner's Whaling Pictures will offer a unique opportunity to consider the paintings as an ensemble and to contemplate their legacy, including their possible impact on Herman Melville's epic novel Moby–Dick, published months before Turner's death in 1851. It is not certain that Melville saw the paintings when he first visited London in 1849, but he was unquestionably aware of them. Aspects of Melville's novel are strikingly evocative of Turner's style.
In addition to the four paintings that will be on view, a selection of related watercolors, prints, books, and wall quotes will also be displayed and will offer insight into Turner's paintings and their possible relationship with Melville's text.
A whaling harpoon, on loan from the South Street Seaport Museum, and whale oil lamps from The Met's collection will also be on view. This focus exhibition will allow viewers to engage closely with the output of these two great 19th–century artists, and to assess for themselves whether the British painter inspired one of the crowning achievements of American literature.
Turner's Whaling Pictures is organized by Alison Hokanson, Assistant Curator, and Katharine Baetjer, Curator, both of the Metropolitan Museum's Department of European Paintings.
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