William Turner’s A Slave Ship and The Importance of Complete Artistic Analysis

As a former scholar of art history in high school, I was relieved to see something recognizable among the sea of text in Gilroy’s article “The Black & Green Atlantic.” While much of that text was very difficult for me to decipher, much less understand, the portion discussing J. M. William Turner’s infamous painting of a slave ship was like a sigh of relief. 

One of the most note-worthy parts of Gilroy’s references to this painting was how he mentioned the fact that the owner of the painting could not speak to its actual meaning and rather was only able to speak of the “aesthetics of painting water” (Gilroy, 14) in the way that Turner was able to paint waves and utilize different colors. I think this is not only an interesting fact, but a very interesting commentary on art as well as artistic interpretation and analysis. 

In the words spoken from the movie clip that we watched last class, “artists use lies to tell the truth.” I believe that this quote is directly related to William Turner’s slave ship in that it utilizes bright colors and delicate brush stroke techniques that distract from the painting’s true and grim subject matter. 

When we are faced with an artistic interpretation of a grim and difficult subject, we oftentimes choose to focus on another element of the piece which makes us feel more comfortable in our discussion rather than to sit in our own discomfort. While this route usually tends to be more common and helps us to feel more comfortable in our artistic interpretations, it is very important to remember that art must be interpreted to its fullest and most complete extent rather than focusing on the elements which aid in our avoidance of discussing the more “touchy” subjects. 

So much of our world’s history can be seen through artistic interpretations throughout history, including our more horrific actions and mistakes. In order to fully prevent these mistakes from happening again, it is important to educate and acknowledge their existence, especially in art.