I’ve taught AP Art History for two years now, going on three, to high school students. It’s become a favorite subject of mine; I get to spend 50 minutes a day telling stories in different ways, narrating the progression of art from rudimentary cave paintings and functional objects, to classical and heroic sculptures and architecture of the ancient Mediterranean, all the way through experimental modernism and into contemporary art.
A big turning point for the discussion of the class occurs right around Neoclassicism and Romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Europe and the Americas were experiencing both political revolutions and the industrial revolution. Global changes were taking place including shifting political ideals, an uprising working class, exponential technological innovation, an objectifying of the natural world through the enlightenment, and an expanding global market. Artists now sought virtuous ideals. For the Neoclassicists, it was the heroics of self-sacrifice and timelessness they saw in the uncovering of classical Roman sculptures. For the Romanticists, it was chasing and expressing the sublime – the emotional catharsis that was very human and incapable of being captured through objectifying sciences and photographic imaging. Artists are now conduits for human experience.
For JMW Turner, an English Romanticist painting and writing in the early 19th century, chasing the sublime was something to be embodied. To better experience these extremes he wanted to express, he would hang his head out a train window rushing through the English countryside. Some stories of his practices tell of him tying himself to the mast of a sailing ship just to observe the phenomena of movement and its effects on human perception. These embodied experiences were then communicated through poetry and paint, as seen in his series of mercantile ships, most famously his 1840 oil painting The Slave Ship (Sailors Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On).
In The Slave Ship, Turner depicts a tragic but true story. A captain of a slave ship, understanding his cargo was insured against accidental loss at sea but not from illness, throws ill slaves overboard. To express the intense emotional confliction at the realization of this event, Turner obscures the horizon of the landscape painting; waves crash, dramatic clouds move about the sky, high contrasting deep reds, yellows, and oranges show a fragmented sunset. The ship itself is a mere silhouette, dissolving amidst the chaos of the waters, the bodies thrown overboard small, but discernible, in the foreground. The horizon exists, though is in a state of flux. If the ship could be a ground in the painting, it is recognizable yet illegible in its liminal transition, the voyage between ports.
Turner distorts the academic painter’s landscape – techniques such as linear perspective that objectify and virtually define human observation - to communicate the inhumane perils of this 19th century collision between ethics and an objectified global market.