The Art of Whaling, Folk Art

Illustration of the sperm whale while attacking fishing boat from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) by Thomas Beale (1807-1849). Original from The New York Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Merry whales in the log of the ship Susan, kept by Reuben Russell. Courtesy, Nantucket Historical Association 
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Whalers, ca. 1845, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896 Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.

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