Published: April 28, 2016
NEW YORK CITY — “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art May 10–August 7, will be the first exhibition to unite the series of four whaling scenes painted by the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) near the end of his career. The quartet of paintings — comprising The Met’s “Whalers,” circa 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.
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. The Met’s exhibition will offer a rare 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 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 Nineteenth Century artists, and to assess for themselves whether the British painter inspired one of the crowning achievements of American literature.
Assistant Curator Alison Hokanson and Curator Katharine Baetjer, both of the museum’s Department of European Paintings, organized the exhibition, which is accompanied by a Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin titled Turner’s Whaling Pictures written by Hokanson.
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