The Wreck of a Transport Ship

7:00 AM

J.M.W. Turner, The Wreck of a Transport Ship, 1810

The Wreck of a Transport Ship immediately reminded me of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. While Turner’s depiction of tragedy at sea may not equal that of Gericault in terms of emotional desolation and tragedy, Turner is easily on par technically with Gericault. What struck me most of all in this painting was the movement. Turner manages to create massive amounts of movement in the violent swells and troughs in what to a lesser artist would seem to be a seascape.

Some of his usual powerful brushstrokes are missing in this painting, but what he lacks there he makes up for with the violence of the sea. The attention to detail in this painting blows me away. Far in the background, almost completely obscured by the mist from the storm and the waves, a broken mast toppling to the ground on top of an unfortunate lifeboat full of sailors is barely visible. Turner’s composition here reminds me of the structure of two other famous paintings of his—Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps and The Slave Ship.

In both of these paintings, as well as Wreck of a Transport Ship, we feel the weight of the sky and snow and rain pressing down on the poor souls caught in nature’s wrathful grip. In each of these, Turner skillfully makes the viewer feel absolutely miniscule. As the ship breaks up, it brings to mind thoughts on the ease with which even something as proud and massive as that ship can be completely destroyed by a simple storm. To me, this painting really is typical Turner. A ferocious sky and a rather dark palette complement a rather dark subject matter and humans take a secondary role. As usual, we struggle to make out the details of the faces of any of the damned crewmembers. The ship seems as though it is about to turn on its former masters and crush the crewmembers who cling to a raft. There is no hope in this painting.

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