Recent tsunami warnings in Hawaii brought to mind a powerful painting by JMW Turner. He was a good painter, but not gifted with pithy titles. Proof? This one’s named: ‘Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—typhon coming on.’ He didn’t misspell ‘typhoon'; that’s just how the English spelled the word back in 1840.
Let’s start with the basics. The painting is oil on canvas, approximately 3 feet high and 4.5 feet wide. At that size, your computer monitor simply can’t do it justice; if you’re ever in Boston, visit the Museum of Fine Arts and see it in person. Its surface is heavily textured by thick paint application, primarily in the lighter-colored areas. The color palette is reminiscent of sunset–in fact, at first glance only the troubled shock of blue on the left suggests that this is not a peaceful scene.
Now look a little more carefully at what Turner painted. The top half of the painting depicts an evening sky with a storm moving in from the left. Close to the center, the sun sets while a ship with all sails furled (except the jib) heads toward the coming storm.
Below the ship, we can make out several birds, some white capped waves, and what appears to be human hands. The image in the bottom right corner is gruesome: a chained foot thrashes in the midst of a dense crowd of apparently ravenous fish or sharks, accompanied by a few more gulls. The skintones, chains, and title of the piece identify the unfortunate humans as slaves-in-transit, tossed to lighten the ship as it faces a typhoon.
Composition: Spectacle of Action
The sharpest color contrast–a red-orange abutting a light blue–occurs at the left edge, suggesting the typhoon’s violence. It also draws the eye to the ship, the only feature the described with precise, sharp angled lines. From there the eye is drawn to a tension between two whites: the vertical setting sun, and a whitecap below the hull. Following the sun, we are plunged into the ocean by the red-orange streak that marks the sunset’s reflection. Here, tossed and jostled, our progress is arrested by several hands thrusting up from below the water’s surface. The eye drifts right, discerning with ease the ungodly marine feast on human flesh.
This corner (bottom right) is a gripping horror; a macabre spectacle that magnetically draws the eyes to its presence. Turner links this horror to the ship by painting each with a clarity and detail not seen elsewhere in the image. You both know and viscerally feel that the fleeing ship is responsible for the awful deaths in the lower right corner.
Metaphors: Red as Guilt
At this point you’ve looked more carefully at this painting than most who see it in person, but there is more. The way a painter depicts a subject is not accidental. Especially in oil paintings at museums, it’s a good bet that every mark has meaning: artists whose pieces find their ways to a museum don’t mistakenly toss colors and strokes around a canvas.
Here’s a good question: why is Turner’s painting so very red? It certainly didn’t have to be. First off, it’s a seascape–those are usually blue. Second, Turner didn’t have to make the typhoon red; usually they are depicted just as darker clouds.
As a color, red-orange suggests anger, danger, passion, fire or destruction, even guilt. Physically, it raises anxiety levels by causing tension in the viewer’s retina, an effect is amplified by the presence of its complement, blue-green. The redness condemns the action, depicting it as a bloody and guilty business. The title claims that those thrown overboard were already ‘dead and dying’, but the painting does not therefore excuse the slavers. Rather, it asserts the victims’ humanity, shows their desperation, and condemns those responsible.
Historical or Art-Critical Background
The image is easily read as anti-slave trade–the title can be as well. It comes from an unpublished poem, ‘Fallacies of Hope’, which hung alongside Turner’s painting when first displayed:
Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying–ne’er heed their chains.
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?
Obviously the image’s overt content supports the abolitionist movement. Yet the painting is concerned not just with the hopelessness of the slave’s condition, but with the poverty of the human condition. Terror permeates the painting as the weak are tossed overboard in the crew’s desperate attempts to prepare to face the elements. While grasping hands express the agonies of the slaves under water, those still on board the vessel are far from safe. They sail into the oncoming typhoon, with uncertain results.
The horrific practices of the slave trade are a far cry from the conditions in Hawaii. Still, Turner’s painting is an eloquent statement of human helplessness and terror in the face of the elements. ‘