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Turner’s Whaling Pictures

May 10–August 7, 2016

Exhibition Location: European Paintings, Gallery 624, 2nd floor
Press Preview: Monday, May 9, 10 am–noon


Turner’s Whaling Pictures, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 7, is the first exhibition to unite the series of four whaling scenes painted by the great British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) near the end of his career. The quartet of paintings— comprising The Met’s Whalers (ca. 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 termed the Sublime.

The exhibition is made possible by the William S. Lieberman Fund, 
the Janice H. Levin Fund, and the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust.

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. Turner’s Whaling Pictures offers a unique 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 that are on view, a selection of related watercolors, prints, books, and wall quotes is displayed and offers 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 are also on view. This focus exhibition allows viewers to engage closely with the output of these two great 19th–century artists, and to assess for themselves whether the British painter inspired one of the crowning achievements of American literature. 

Turner’s Whaling Pictures is organized by Alison Hokanson, Assistant Curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of European Paintings.

The exhibition is accompanied by a Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin entitled Turner’s Whaling Pictures written by Alison Hokanson. It is on sale in the Museum’s book shop and at store.metmuseum.org.

The publication is made possible by the William S. Lieberman Fund.

The Met’s quarterly Bulletin program is supported in part by the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, established by the cofounder of Reader’s Digest.

Education programs include a gallery reading of excerpts from Moby–Dick on July 8 and a Picture This! program on June 16 for visitors who are blind or partially sighted.

Additional information about the exhibition and its accompanying programs is available on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using #MetTurner.

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May 9, 2016


Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851). Whalers, ca. 1845. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896

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