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The Path of Nature: Scenic Routes



Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, London 1775–1851 London)

ca. 1845
Oil on canvas
36 1/8 x 48 1/4 in. (91.8 x 122.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    Turner was seventy years old when Whalers debuted to mixed reviews at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1845. Its subject proved elusive, as the English novelist William Thackeray observed: "That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! they turn out to be a ship with all her sails." Apparently Turner undertook the painting—which was returned to him—for the collector Elhanan Bicknell, who had made his fortune in the whale-oil business.

  • Catalogue Entry

    This picture is one of four whaling subjects by Turner; the other three form part of the artist's bequest at Tate Britain, London. The MMA painting and another of the same title were shown at the Royal Academy in 1845, receiving a mixed reception. The third and fourth in the series—"Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!" and Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves—were exhibited the following year.

    Turner’s principal literary source was Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, published in London in 1835 and in an expanded edition in 1839. Elhanan Bicknell, the first owner of the MMA painting, had made his fortune as a director of Langton and Bicknell, oil merchants of Newington Butts, whose financial interest was in ships of the Pacific sperm-whale fishery. He subscribed for four copies of Beale's book, and may have given or lent one to Turner, whose patron he already was. The artist subtitled his 1845 exhibits "Vide Beale’s Voyage," referring to page 163 for the Tate’s picture and page 175 for the MMA work. For his depiction of the whale, which is clearly visible only in this canvas, Turner consulted wood engravings by William James Linton and after William Huggins that illustrate Beale’s book. Bicknell’s firm also owned a canvas by Huggins (private collection, United Kingdom), painted about 1835, that Turner must have used as a source for details in this picture and its companion.

    There are related watercolors on nine pages of Turner’s undated Whalers Sketchbook in the Tate (Finberg no. CCCLIII, fols. 6–14) and a separate sheet with a whaling subject is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (PD.116-1950). While the watercolors are as evocative as the painting, none is closely related in thematic material, and all may in any event be later. In the 1840s, few people in England knew what a sperm whale looked like. Turner may never have seen one and, using the descriptions and illustrations that were available to him, he created these works in part from his imagination, bringing to bear many years’ observation of the seas in the Channel and elsewhere along the English coast.

    In April 1850, a few months after returning to New York from his first visit to London, Herman Melville ordered a copy of Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale. On the title page, Melville wrote, "Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book", thus documenting that he knew of Turner’s paintings, even though he may never have seen them, and that he drew on Beale, as well as his own experience as a sailor and harpooner, when writing Moby-Dick, published in 1851. As Wallace (1985) has suggested, Melville may have had Whalers in mind while describing a picture hanging in the Spouter-Inn in chapter three of Moby-Dick.

    The painting, acquired by the Museum in 1896, was relined and cleaned in 1933, and treated again in 1968. The surface is flattened. The ship is considerably abraded, but some of the rigging can still be read. The best-preserved passages are the small boats and figures, the head of the whale, and the dark, choppy surrounding sea. Turner changed the contours of the whale’s nose, gradually widening and enlarging the shape. Examination under the microscope reveals the remnants of scumbles associated with the darkest gray pigment that may originally have subdued the contrast between this pigment and the surrounding areas.

    [2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]

  • Provenance

    Elhanan Bicknell, Herne Hill, Dulwich, Surrey (in 1845); Joseph Hogarth, London (until 1851; Royal Gallery of British Art sale, Christie's, London, June 13, 1851, no. 48, as "The Whaler: 'Hurrah for the whaler Erebus, another fish.' 'Beale's Voyage'", for £299 to Gambart); [Gambart, London, from 1851; probably sold to Miller]; John Miller, Liverpool (by 1858–67; his sale, Christie's, London, May 22, 1858, no. 247, as "The Whale Ship", for £367.10.0 to Gambart for Miller; sold to Agnew); [Agnew, London, 1867; sold for £1,890 to Graham]; John Graham, Skelmorlie Castle, Ayrshire (1867; sold to Agnew); [Agnew, London, 1867–68; sold to Leyland]; Frederick Richard Leyland, Liverpool (1868–74; his sale, Christie's, London, June 13, 1874, no. 115, as "The Whale Ship", for £960.15.0, bought in); Thomas Woolner, London (in 1875; his sale, Christie's, London, June 12, 1875, no. 132, as "Whalers", for £325.10.0 to Ellis, bought in); Charles Cooper, London (until 1883; sale, Christie's, London, April 21, 1883, no. 151, as "The Whale Ship", for £945 to Vokins); [Vokins, London, 1883; sold for about £1,500 to Haden]; Sir Francis Seymour Haden, Woodcote Manor, Alresford, Hampshire (1883–96; sale, Christie's, London, May 23, 1891, no. 110, for £945 to Wilson, bought in; sold to MMA)

  • Exhibition History

    London. Royal Academy. 1845, no. 77 (as "Whalers—Vide Beale's Voyage, p. 175").

    London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1892, no. 19 (as "The Whale-Ship," lent by F. Seymour Haden).

    "English Portraits and Landscapes (circulating exhibition)," 1951–52.

    Indianapolis. John Herron Art Museum. "Turner in America," November 12–December 25, 1955, no. 49.

    London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Bicentenary Exhibition," December 14, 1968–March 2, 1969, no. 164.

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Impressionism: A Centenary Exhibition," December 12, 1974–February 10, 1975, not in catalogue.

    Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 45.

    Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 45.

    Williamstown, Mass. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. "Turner: The Late Seascapes," June 14–September 7, 2003, unnumbered cat. (fig. 56).

    Manchester Art Gallery. "Turner: The Late Seascapes," October 31, 2003–January 25, 2004, unnumbered cat. (fig. 56).

    Glasgow. Burrell Collection. "Turner: The Late Seascapes," February 19–May 23, 2004, unnumbered cat. (fig. 56).

    Washington. National Gallery of Art. "J. M. W. Turner," October 1, 2007–January 6, 2008, no. 144 (as "Whalers [The Whale Ship]").

    Dallas Museum of Art. "J. M. W. Turner," February 10–May 18, 2008, no. 144 (as "Whalers [The Whale Ship]").

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "J. M. W. Turner," June 24–September 21, 2008, no. 144 (as "Whalers [The Whale Ship]").

  • References

    "Fine Arts: Royal Academy." Literary Gazette (May 17, 1845), p. 314.

    Morning Chronicle (May 7, 1845).

    "A Scamper through the Exhibition of the Royal Academy." Punch (May 1845), p. 233.

    John James Ruskin. Letter to John Ruskin. September 19, 1845 [see Ref. Shapiro 1972], writes that "[Bicknell] found Water Colour in Whalers [probably this picture] & rubbed out some with Handky. He went to Turner who looked Daggers & refused to do anything, but at last he has taken it back to alter. Roberts admires the picture but all say it is not finished. They account for his hurry & disregard for future fame by putting Water Colours by his stronger passion, love of money. I am sorry he sacrifices his great fame to present effect & object".

    The Spectator (May 24, 1845).

    The Spectator (May 10, 1845).

    "Royal Academy." The Times (May 6, 1845), p. 6.

    Michel Angelo Titmarsh [W. M. Thackeray]. "Picture Gossip." Fraser's Magazine (June 1845), pp. 720–21.

    J. M. W. Turner. Letter to Elhanan Bicknell. January 31, 1845 [see Refs. Armstrong 1902 and Butlin and Joll 1977], writes that "I have a whale or two on canvas".

    John Ruskin. Modern Painters. 1, 3rd ed. London, 1846, pp. 135–36, calls the whaling pictures exhibited in 1845 "altogether unworthy" of Turner.

    John Burnet and Peter Cunningham. Turner and His Works. London, 1852, p. 120, no. 234, claim that both of the Whalers exhibited in 1845 were painted for Bicknell.

    Walter Thornbury. The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. London, 1862, vol. 2, pp. 383, 402.

    Charles W. Deschamps. Letter to Henry G. Marquand. November 22, 1886, states his uncle, Gambart, bought in the picture for John Miller at his sale of 1858, and [erroneously] that on Miller's death it was sold to Sir Donald Currie [see Ref. Joll 1980].

    Francis Seymour Haden. Letter to Samuel P. Avery. October 23, 1887, states that it has never been engraved, and that it belonged to Munro of Novar; asks £2,300 for it.

    Francis Seymour Haden. Letter to Samuel P. Avery. March 30, 1895, reports that the picture is en route to New York.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hand-Book No. 1: The Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection and Other Modern Paintings. New York, 1896, p. 10, no. 11, incorrectly gives the dimensions as 56 x 42 in.

    "Metropolitan Museum of Art: New Purchases and Loans." New York Times (May 4, 1896), p. 4, states that it was purchased by Dr. Munro from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1846.

    William Sharp. "The Art Treasures of America (Concluded.)." Living Age, 7th ser., 1 (December 3, 1898), pp. 603–4.

    Arthur Hoeber. The Treasures of The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. New York, 1899, p. 70.

    C. F. Bell. A List of the Works Contributed to Public Exhibitions by J. M. W. Turner, R.A. London, 1901, p. 152, no. 250, icorrectly refers to the Woolmer picture as a separate, smaller version, 18 x 24 in.; points out that the present picture should not be subtitled "Hurrah for the Whaler Erebus".

    Walter Armstrong. Turner. London, 1902, pp. 158, 175, 236, quotes the January 31, 1845 note from Turner to Bicknell [see Ref.].

    Robert Chignell. J. M. W. Turner, R.A. London, 1902, p. 203.

    The Works of John Ruskin. 3, London, 1903, pp. 250–52.

    W. L. Wyllie. J. M. W. Turner. London, 1905, p. 134.

    P[ercy]. M[oore]. Turner. "Pictures of the English School in New York." Burlington Magazine 22 (February 1913), p. 275.

    Chauncey Brewster Tinker. Painter and Poet: Studies in the Literary Relations of English Painting, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1937–1938. Cambridge, Mass., 1938, pp. 158, 160, cites Beale's Natural History of the Sperm-Whale (1838; 2nd ed., 1839), with its woodcuts, as Turner's source for the Whaler series.

    A. J. Finberg. The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. Oxford, 1939, pp. 407, 409, 509, no. 564, states this was the one picture sold out of Turner's six 1845 Royal Academy exhibits.

    T[homas]. S[herrer]. R[oss]. Boase. "Shipwrecks in English Romantic Painting." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22 (July–December 1959), p. 344, pl. 34d, notes the influence of Beale's text; observes that the reference to Erebus comes from Dr. John Richardson's Zoology of the Voyage of H. M. S. Erebus and Terror, of which part V was in Turner's library; calls a picture on loan to the Fogg a preliminary sketch.

    Claus Virch. "'Ye Mists and Exhalations That Now Rise'." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 20 (April 1962), p. 253.

    Jack Lindsay. J. M. W. Turner: His Life and Work. Greenwich, Conn., 1966, p. 192, suggests that Turner may have been inspired by having seen or heard of the 14 1/2 foot whale caught off Deptford in October 1842.

    Herman Melville. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Harmondsworth, England, 1972, p. 711, pl. 9.

    Ruskin in Italy: Letters to his Parents, 1845. Oxford, 1972, p. 82 n. 4, p. 230 n. 3, p. 248 n. 2, presumes this picture to have been the subject of Turner's quarrel with Bicknell.

    Martin Butlin, Andrew Wilton, and John Gage. Turner, 1775–1851. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1974, pp. 140, 146, 171, note the related material in the Whalers sketchbook, T.B.CCCLIII-6–14, and mention also a watercolor at the Fitzwilliam Museum (PD.116.1950) which may come from T.B.CCCLVII of May 1845, suggest that Bicknell could have introduced Turner to Beale's book in about 1840.

    Malcolm Cormack. J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1775–1851: A Catalogue of Drawings and Watercolours in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Cambridge, 1975, pp. 74–75 n. 1, connects the Fitzwilliam watercolor with the whaling pictures and dates it 1845.

    Luke Herrmann. Turner: Paintings, Watercolors, Prints & Drawings. Boston, 1975, pp. 53–54, 234.

    Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner. New Haven, 1977, vol. 1, pp. 63, 235–38, 242, 244, 259, no. 415; vol. 2, pl. 399, suggest that it was painted for Bicknell and redate Turner's letter to him from June 31 to January 31, 1845 [see Ref. Armstrong 1902]; explain the past confusion over the titles, relate the painting to Beale's third story in the Natural History, an incident of June 18, 1832.

    Francis L. Fennell Jr. The Rossetti-Leyland Letters: The Correspondence of an Artist and his Patron. Athens, Ohio, 1978, p. 64, letter no. 79, p. 105 n. 1, notes that the picture, mentioned in a letter of May 31, 1874, was to be sold by Leyland at Christie's on June 13.

    Evelyn Joll. Letter to Hilary Ney. March 21, 1980, dismisses the possibility of Currie's ownership in 1886.

    Andrew Wilton. Turner and the Sublime. Exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. London, 1980, p. 153 n. 1.

    Luke Herrmann. "Turner and the Sea." Turner Studies: His Art and Epoch 1775–1851 1 (1981), p. 15.

    Richard S. Moore. That Cunning Alphabet: Melville's Aesthetics of Nature. Amsterdam, 1982, p. 129, pl. IX.

    Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner. rev. ed. New Haven, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 72, 85–86, 260–63, 267, 271, 289, no. 415; vol. 2, colorpl. 425.

    John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. London, 1984, p. 231.

    Peter Bicknell. "Turner's The Whale Ship: A Missing Link?" Turner Studies: His Art & Epoch 1775–1851 5 (Winter 1985), pp. 20–23, pl. 1, cover ill. (color detail), mentions a print after William John Huggins and proposes that Huggins's painting, A Whaler in the South Sea Fishery of about 1830–35, still in the collection of the Bicknell family, was Turner's visual source.

    Barry Venning. "Turner's Whaling Subjects." Burlington Magazine 127 (February 1985), pp. 75–83, fig. 10, is of the opinion that the four whaling pictures were "planned from the start as a quartet," describes where Turner departs from p. 175 of Beale's text, and relates the "elegiac quality" of the painting to the vicissitudes of the whaling industry.

    Robert K. Wallace. "The 'sultry creator of Captain Ahab': Herman Melville and J. M. W. Turner." Turner Studies: His Art & Epoch 1775–1851 5 (Winter 1985), pp. 8–9, 11–16, 18 n. 59, p. 19 nn. 80, 82, 85, 86, ill. on cover (color detail), suggests that Melville had the painting in mind while describing a picture in the Spouter-Inn in Moby-Dick, 1851, and believes he must have known it "very well," from having seen it in person in 1849 or from secondary sources.

    Peter Bicknell and Helen Guiterman. "The Turner Collector: Elhanan Bicknell." Turner Studies: His Art & Epoch 1775–1851 7 (Summer 1987), p. 39, state that the four pictures of whalers "never ended up in the Bicknell collection" but "may have been commissioned by Elhanan, and at any rate were probably painted in the hope that he would buy them" while noting that this work "passed through [his] hands".

    Andrew Wilton. Turner in his Time. New York, 1987, pp. 233, 243, 252 n. 303, fig. 303, notes that it "seems to derive much of its detail" from Huggins's painting.

    Robert K. Wallace. "The Antarctic Sources for Turner's 1846 Whaling Oils." Turner Studies: His Art & Epoch 1775–1851 8 (Summer 1988), pp. 20–21, 29, fig. 6 (detail).

    Robert K. Wallace. Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright. Athens, Ga., 1992, pp. 12, 175, 296, 306, 322–23, 325–30, 467, 469, 479, 496, 516, 518, 520, 532, 534, 540, 542–46, 548–50, 552–58, 561–62, 588, 599 n. 19, colorpl. 2, ill. p. 475 and fig. 154 (details).

    Anthony Bailey. Standing in the Sun: A Life of J. M. W. Turner. London, 1997, p. 358.

    James Hamilton. Turner: A Life. London, 1997, p. 297, states that Bicknell "suggested, and possibly commissioned," the four whaling subjects.

    Evelyn Joll in The Oxford Companion to J. M. W. Turner. Oxford, 2001, pp. 24, 187, asserts that Bicknell acquired but probably did not commission it.

    Robert K. Wallace in The Oxford Companion to J. M. W. Turner. Oxford, 2001, pp. 377–79, 414, notes that whales and whaling were "unlikely subjects" for the Royal Academy in 1845, that this picture was the only one of the four to be sold in Turner's lifetime, and that its acquisition by the MMA initiated its early and extended public exposure.

    David Blayney Brown. Turner in the Tate Collection. London, 2002, p. 162.

    James Hamilton. Turner: The Late Seascapes. Exh. cat., Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. New Haven, 2003, pp. 57, 99, 103–6, 149 n. 27, p. 155, ill. p. 88 (color detail), fig. 56 (color).

    Franklin Kelly in J. M. W. Turner. Exh. cat., Washington National Gallery of Art. London, 2007, pp. 242–43.

    Rebecca A. Rabinow in Masterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 23, 309–10, no. 21, ill. (color and black and white).

    Ian Warrell in J. M. W. Turner. Exh. cat., Washington National Gallery of Art. London, 2007, pp. 188, 194, 197, 199–200, 203, 259, no. 144, ill. (color).

    Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 233–37, no. 114, ill. (color).

  • Notes

    According to Haden (1887), the painting belonged to H. A. J. Munro of Novar, although none of the Christie's catalogues in which the painting was offered (1851, 1858, 1874, 1875, 1883, and 1891) mention him as a previous owner.

  • See also