IT was not a bad suggestion of one of the Boston daily papers that those who intended going to see Turner’s picture, known as The Slave Ship, which has lately been added to the loan collection at the Art Museum, should not read beforehand Ruskin’s description of that famous work. For most of our art-lovers the advice came too late ; while as if to make the warning doubly vain, the management of the museum have had the description printed upon cards and plentifully distributed about the hall.
To those who have not yet seen it, it may be interesting to know that The Slave Ship is an oil-painting, not a water-color, as we find many had supposed, about four feet in width by about three in height. It is, however, covered by a sheet of plate-glass, confirming at a first glance the mistaken notion with regard to the material with which it is painted. It was the English, we believe, who first conceived the idea of protecting in this way their most valuable oil-paintings, regarding them apparently as too precious to be seen. The picture stands upon an easel in a corner of the large picture gallery, not inclined forward, as it should be, but backward, at such an angle that objects in front of it are reflected in the glass almost as clearly as in a mirror, Under these circumstances it is almost impossible to see the picture, and rash to attempt to criticise it technically.
It was Turner himself who gave the picture its title. His account of it in the Academy Catalogue, 1840, when it was first exhibited, was: “Slaver throwing overboard the dead and dying. Typhoon coming on.” Ruskin, however, fixes the time as after, not before a storm; and at sunset: and in this we have no doubt he is right. The weather is evidently clearing up, and it is equally plain that it is an evening sky. We feel convinced, indeed, that what originally suggested the picture was a sunset seen by the artist under conditions similar to those mentioned by Ruskin : it was not on the Atlantic, however, for Turner was never on the open ocean. The “ typhoon coming on,” like the “ throwing overboard,” we have no doubt was an after-thought; the former invented, perhaps at the last moment, to explain the latter.
It is difficult to conceive why the artist should have disfigured his picture by this story of “man’s inhumanity to man,” — marring one of the most glorious aspects of nature by the introduction of one of the most hideous of crimes. The only excuse to be offered for him is the morbid imagination which, as we are told, made him regard the color scarlet, so largely used in the clouds of this picture, as the type of death. To this may be added, in further extenuation, the bourgeois taste of the British public, — a taste fully shared by Turner himself, — which demands that every picture shall have a story and a title, the more striking and sensational the better.
The picture is indeed marred in a double sense. The details introduced to give color to the title are as badly executed as they are horribly conceived. They violate all truth and all probability. Their ludicrous even more than their horrible character is entirely out of keeping with the time and place. It is only by resolutely shutting our eyes to them, by striving to forget them, that we can obtain from the picture any legitimate and satisfactory impression. Fortunately, they are few in number, and occupy comparatively but little space.
If we adopt what seems to be the most probable interpretation, the scene represented is a weird and fantastic but glorious sunset, — the happy sequel of a fearful storm. The gale is just over; a dense mass of rain cloud still lingers on the left ; but a brisk breeze has sprung up from a fairweather quarter, and is driving before it the streaming fragments it has torn from this last remnant and rear-guard of the tempest, chasing them in wild disorder across the sky. The sun shines out through the parted clouds, still enveloped in a thin white and golden mist, which spreading upward is rent here and there in the right-hand upper corner, showing through the interstices the pale and tender blue of the open sky. Lower down, and reaching to the horizon, scarlet and golden, crimson and purple clouds he stretched in level lines, all their splendor reflected in the tossing waves. The sea is chiefly divided into two great waves, one, on the left of the picture, dark with the shadow of the overhanging rain cloud, the one on the right glittering in the sunshine and hardly to he distinguished from the sky above it Between them lies a deep hollow, dazzling with light and color reflected from the sun and the clouds. This hollow, or “ trough of the sea,” is somewhat capriciously broken up into smaller waves; and in it are floating the half hideous, half ludicrous objects supposed to have been thrown overboard from the ship. It is also thickly peopled with marine monsters, more grotesque than terrible.
The ship, a nondescript craft, one third ship and two thirds lugger, is in the middle distance toward the left of the picture, rising upon the crest of the dark wave, her hull completely hidden by foam and spray, with no sail set but a jib, and heading partly toward, but more to the left of the spectator. The only damage she appears to have sustained is the loss of her mizzen topmast, which, with a blue and white flag attached to it, is among the floating débris in the foreground. It is a little surprising that the immense lug-sail yards attached to her two aftward masts should not have been the first to go.
The point of view is placed high in the canvas, a common practice with Turner; we seem to be looking down on the waves from an eminence, which has the not altogether desirable effect of diminishing their apparent height. As a composition the picture seems wanting in balance, producing an uncomfortable sensation of blankness on the right, as though something that ought to be there had been taken away, making the water appear as though it were running down hill out of the picture from left to right. This may be in part owing to the color on the bright wave on the right having faded. Some strong accent seems to be required in this part of the picture, to restore the equilibrium, to make us feel that there is a horizon somewhere, even though we cannot sec it.
The sky in this picture naturally first attracts attention. It is the region where Turner reigns supreme, acknowledged sole master in the art of representing the varied phenomena of the atmosphere. The day is past for criticising the conventionalisms and make-shifts to which he was obliged to have recourse in order to suggest — for no human power can fully imitate— the splendors he was the first to attempt to portray. We can only be glad that he dared so much and succeeded so well.
The lower part of the canvas is much less satisfactory As an attempt to represent the open sea it is a failure. The wave upon which the vessel is riding suggests a little the “ lift ” of the true ocean swell and something of the color of what sailors are apt to call “black,” not bine water; but everywhere else we are evidently “ on soundings.” The forms of the water in the hollow between the waves are to us incomprehensible. They are so much mixed up with the shapes — or the shapelessness — of other things that it is difficult to make them out; and we cannot but suspect that Turner has sometimes turned and twisted them in order to display to the best advantage his little collection of monstrosities, rather than sought to give the true aspect of something that he had really seen. One singular fact about the sea in a storm is to some extent intimated, — the apparent obliteration of all perspective. To the novice the sea always appears, during a gale, unaccountably small; nothing distant can be seen, and one is more impressed by the nearness than even by the size of the waves. Something of this effect may be seen in the horizontal bars of scarlet and crimson clouds in this sea view of Turner’s. These clouds have no perspective; it is impossible to say how far off they are, or whether any one of them is nearer than the others. There is indeed an extraordinary mingling of sea and sky, so that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. Especially in the illuminated trough of the sea which leads the eye along a blazing pathway to the sun, one strives in vain to distinguish how much is cloud, how much is driving spray, and how much water. There may he a little exaggeration in this ; but no more than is fairly permissible to one who, having received a strong impression from an actual sunset and an actual storm, should attempt, while stilL under its influence, to describe the scene in words, or to reproduce it upon canvas.
One thing at least is certain : we have here a work conceived and executed under the impulse of a strong emotion, one which cannot fail to excite a corresponding emotion in the spectator. Not in every idle looker-on, no doubt, for if “a jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it,”still more does a work of art, a poem, or a picture. need to address itself to a receptive and appreciative mind. Nor will the emotion he always, or, we may say, ever precisely that felt by the author or painter; and especially in the case of the painter it will he difficult to convey the exact impression he had in his own mind, using, as he does, a language at once so definite and so vague, — definite beyond all power of words in describing the outward appearance ; but only able to hint the hidden meaning, the inner thought.
— Among the paintings by Mr, F. Hill Smith, recently exhibited at Williams and Everett’s, there was a little sketch, called in the catalogue a New England Interior The scene is an unfinished garret in a common Yankee country house. The sloping walls are of rough, unpainted boards; the one window, toward the right, has its sash thrown up to its utmost limit; the sunlight comes pouring in, making a brilliant square patch on the bare floor, while outside is a bit of sky and the tops of trees. Beside the window, on the left, a square brick chimney rises through the floor, and in front of it is a wash-stand of a pattern very common fifty years ago, painted bright yellow. On the other side of the window is a large square blue chest; on top of this, a brown trunk with a rounded lid, and on a shelf above, a ewer with a broken handle. In the left-hand corner, on the floor, is another blue box, of smaller dimensions than the other, while in the middle of the room stands a bedstead with low, round-topped posts of yellow maple. The bed is covered with a striped counterpane, brown and white, and partly conceals the patch of sunlight on the floor. There is no living thing in the room ; nor do we care that there should be. The whole garret seems pervaded and glorified with light, with a suggestion, also, of heat. The blue chest, the yellow wash-stand, the red bricks, are made, or rather are seen to he as gorgeous in color as gems; while the whole scale of lights and darks is so thoroughly understood and felt, and so accurately rendered, that, bright and glowing as the other objects may be, we still feel that it is really the sunlight that makes that spot on the floor brightest of all. Whatever else this little sketch may be, it is at least an admirable study of light and color — without much delicacy of sentiment, somewhat coarse in execution, painted rapidly though not carelessly, but plainly showing that the artist was really moved to paint it and did his work under the influence of a genuine and strong impression.
In melancholy contrast to this bright little canvas are two pictures which we saw at the late exhibition of the Boston Art Club ; one called Waiting for Breakfast, and the other The Young Oarsman, both by one artist and both, like Mr. Hill Smith’s sketch, New England Interiors.
In the first the scene is laid in a somewhat old-fashioned kitchen. A woman, past middle age and hard-featured, is bending over a cooking stove frying cakes, while a little girl, fresh from her morning toilet, stands watching the process with folded hands. A coffee-mill of time-honored pattern is conveniently screwed to a projecting stud; against the kitchen wall, high up on a shelf, stands the inevitable Connecticut clock; under it swings by a cord the familiar round red worsted pincushion, while the indispensable almanac is suspended by a string from a nail beside the door. Through this door, which stands open, we have a peep into the pantry, with its ranges of drawers below and shelves above, not forgetting the molasses jug on the floor in the corner. All these details and many others were carefully and faithfully given : the drawing throughout, except perhaps in the little girl’s figure, was correct, the perspective everywhere right, and every object had its proper local color. And yet the result was not a success. The picture was not interesting: to some it appeared to be positively displeasing. One cause of this failure was evident at a glance. There was a want of concentration, both in the interest and in the light and shade. The eye wandered distractedly over the whole and found no resting-place. But the final cause which was at the bottom of all the trouble was that the artist had had no unity of purpose and could therefore give to his work no unity of effect. There was not wanting a certain degree of refinement, nor even a slight suggestion of pathos in the treatment of the subordinate details, which, however seemed to have deserted the artist when he approached the human figures. It was impossible to resist the fancy that he had taken far more pleasure in the yellow wall and the coffee-mill and the peep into the pantry, decidedly the best parts of the picture, than in either the woman or the child, He seemed to have missed his picture. One could not help wishing there had been some one at his elbow to say to him : “Paint what you like; if it is the still life, paint that; don’t put figures into your canvas merely because you think they ought to be there to make a picture and give it a story and a name. Whatever attracts yon, whatever is to you a motive and not a mere subject, find out in what its charm consists and paint that. Do not be ashamed of painting pots and pans ; the greatest masters have not disdained them, aud they afford most admirable training for the artistic instinct.” Michael Angelo said high art was ‘‘ to paint a common fish from the market so as to show why it should bn painted at all.”
In the other picture there is a boy sitting in a child’s bath-tub, which he pretends is a boat and which he is supposed to be rowing with a broom and the stick of his hobbyhorse for oars. But he is doing nothing of the sort; he sits quite still and stolid, with no expression on his face either of childish glee or of sober earnestness. Here, as in the first picture, the real subject is the room with its furniture; the boy is merely an accessory added to make what is sometimes called an anecdote picture. But the room, though in one sense admirably painted, is wanting in effect; it is not seen pictorially ; and the subject is one which of all others demands pictorial treatment to make it interesting. It is an ordinary bedroom of a well-to-do citizen, furnished handsomely but without taste; and until the Household Art Reform inaugurated by Messrs. Eastlake and Morris is fully accomplished, such subjects had, perhaps, better be avoided.