Among the most revered works by the great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) are those representing the world dissolved by light, steam, fog, smoke, rain, wind and snow. One of his favorite settings for his evocations of elemental chaos was the ocean, a place where nature regularly overwhelms human challenges to its dominion.
In this vein, late in his career, when he was around 70, Turner made the dangerous business of whaling the subject of four paintings. He exhibited two of them at the Royal Academy in London in 1845 and the others in 1846, but they’ve never been shown all together until now, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art has united them in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” an exceptionally thought-provoking exhibition.
The show’s centerpiece is “Whalers” (circa 1845), which the Met owns. The massive dark head of a wounded sperm whale erupts above the mossy-green sea surface to the left, bloody water streaming over its back. Its tail is visible in glimpses amid the froth to the right, while in the middle, an oarsman struggles to keep afloat his small boat, from which his mates have been tossed into the brine. In the background, rendered in pale grays, the three-masted whaling vessel, with all sails raised, looms like a ghost ship against a white sky.
This description makes the picture seem clearer than it is. Made in a proto-Impressionist manner, with paint applied in flurries of marks and in sweeping gestures, it projects a blurry scene, more dreamlike than conventionally realistic. If you’re interested in detailed pictorial documentation of the whaling industry, this is not the most informative of sources.
The other three paintings, all owned by the Tate, London, are similarly indistinct and lushly atmospheric while depicting events of terrific excitement. In the second painting from 1845, also titled “Whalers,” harpooners stand on the bows of two boats, aiming their weapons at the dark hump of a surfacing whale spouting a bloody geyser. “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (1846) depicts through a thick, glowing haze the aftermath of a successful hunt, with men in boats to the left celebrating, and others, on the ship to the right, taking apart their catch.
“Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavoring to Extricate Themselves” (1846) represents two spectral ships on an eerily calm Arctic sea. The one to the right has an orange ember smoldering at its center, representing fire heating a caldron of whale fat. Farther to the right, you can make out men sawing a big chunk of the ice that threatens to entrap their vessel.
Were it not for the explanatory museum labels, a viewer today would have a hard time making out what’s going on in either of the two later works. Observers in Turner’s day regularly remarked on his painterly obfuscations. Writing about one of the whaling pictures, a critic noted, “There is a charming association of colour here — the emerald green tells with exceeding freshness; but it would be impossible to define anything in the composition save the rigging of the ship.” The reference to color may puzzle today’s viewers. Turner often used fugitive pigments that eventually lost their vibrancy. His whaling pictures probably used to be more colorful than they are now.
Turner himself never went on a whaling voyage, and it’s possible that he never saw a whale, alive or dead. Few people had, which is why the subject piqued imaginations. The exhibition’s organizer, Alison Hokanson, an assistant curator at the Met, writes in an excellent essay published in a museum bulletin, “The open ocean in Turner’s day was akin to deep space today: a vast and mostly uncharted realm that was often the stuff of fantasy.” Elsewhere, she notes: “Whales, and particularly sperm whales, were quasi-mythological creatures. Most people had never seen one of the animals, and existing images and descriptions, even scientific ones, were generally inaccurate.”
Figuratively speaking, the whale Turner was trying to capture was the Sublime, a topic on the minds of the philosophers, artists and poets of his day. The Sublime was whatever exceeded human comprehension by virtue of its vastness and dynamism. In those Post-Enlightenment times, you could doubt the existence of God, but the Sublime was undeniably manifest, if not fully comprehensible, in mountains, volcanoes, typhoons, the ocean and giant creatures of the deep. Turner’s incandescent pictures teeter on the brink of the unknowable, at the outer limits of imagination, where the real vaporizes into the infinite.
Scholars are uncertain whether Herman Melville ever saw Turner’s whaling pictures, but he knew about them. He wrote, “Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book” in a copy of “The Natural History of the Sperm Whale,” a study by Thomas Beale that Turner did, in fact, consult. Unlike Turner’s paintings, Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, the Whale” is filled with enough detail to serve as a textbook on the whaling industry.
But the novelist and the painter were kindred spirits in their pursuits of the awesome and the terrifying. The exhibition’s introductory wall text quotes a passage from the third chapter of “Moby-Dick,” in which Ishmael describes a large, old, much abused painting of a whale attacking a ship that he came upon at the Spouter-Inn: “A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.”
It would be wonderful to think of Turner reading “Moby-Dick” and recognizing his own work in Ishmael’s heated description, but it’s almost certain that he didn’t. He died in December 1851, just two months after the publication of Melville’s epic tragedy.