Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Slave Ship

J.M.W. Turner  Oil Painting  1840

On November 29, 1781 and the days following, 133 Africans were jettisoned from the slave ship Zong in attempt to lighten the cargo load.  Men, women, and children, some of which were still shackled, were dumped into the Caribbean.   They were alive.

Captain Luke Collingwood became ill, along with a number of crew and slaves.  His crew made a series of navigational errors, and neglected to properly resupply the potable water. In addition, they were carrying more than twice the number of slaves typical for that size ship.

In the 18th century, Africans were nothing but cargo.  The “cargo” was sick and they were low on water.  If they died of natural causes the insurance would not cover their losses.  If they made it to land but were too ill to sell, it would also be a loss for the ship owners.

Money spoke louder than humanity, which isn’t overly surprising as it was a slave ship.  They found a loophole to exploit in the insurance policy.  A loophole that was nothing short of a massacre.

They used the law of General Average, a maritime law stating that all parties share any losses resulting from  a voluntary sacrifice of part of the ship or cargo to save the whole in an emergency.  They were low on water.  The crew later claimed the rest of the cargo couldn’t be maintained unless some were sacrificed.  For 133 people, this human sacrifice was not voluntary.  Ten others saw their sacrifice and jumped overboard in what was later described as an act of defiance.

A number of trials followed after the arrival of the Zong in Jamaica.  The insurance company wouldn’t pay, and the proceedings dragged on for years.  One important point to note, the insurance company actually stated that the use of General Average did not apply as it could never justify the killing of innocent people, slaves or not.  They went on to say that the actions of the crew were nothing short of murder.

Whether the legal team of the insurance company was just looking for a way to not pay, no one can be sure.  However, historians do believe they were swayed by Granville Sharp, an abolitionist.  The story of the Zong Massacre, although not widely reported at the time, became a horrific example of the treatment slaves faced and influenced the abolitionist movement for years to come.

Slavery was abolished in England in 1833.  Not until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 were slaves freed in the United States.

JMW Turner is one of Britain’s most beloved and highly treasured artists.  His Romanticism style landscapes gained as much popularity as the historic paintings of his time.  His later works, The Slave Ship included, are often seen as the precursors to Impressionism.

I’m such a fan of Turner’s earlier Romantic works, that when I first saw this piece I had the same reaction that many of his contemporaries had.  What is this?  Where are the beautiful masts with the wind blowing them like his other sea paintings?  Where are the rolling clouds and delicately detailed waves?

Maybe he had lost it.  People talked that he was loosing his eyesight, his patience, his mind.  But then I learned the story of the Zong.   Turner painted The Slave Ship after reading The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson.  It was painted for  a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society, of which Turner was a member.  He may have hoped Prince Albert would see it and would be inspired to enforce tougher anti-slavery laws.

This painting is difficult for me.  I like things orderly, deliberate, beautiful.  This is anything but.  It’s dark and furious, ominous.  You can see the ship in the background, but the light across the bow almost looks like fog.  But what you can see in the forground of the painting are limbs reaching from the water, some still shackled.  It even appears that there are a group of fish and birds attacking the flailing bodies.

As with so many other paintings, it’s the history that makes this painting beautiful to me, not the color, the technique, the brushstrokes.  The passion Turner felt, the horror, the sense that the story needed to be told.  And although it’s not the beautiful Turner style I would have chosen, it did its job.  It caught my attention.  It inspired me to learn and to share the story with you.

 

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The Thankful Poor

Henry Ossawa Tanner  Oil Painting  1894

Over the years, I’ve often filled my social media with rants about Thanksgiving and its misrepresentation of a joyful time of Pilgrims and Native Americans happily eating turkey and beautifully colored corn and pumpkin pie.  I would sometimes include paintings or articles about the persecution of Native peoples.  My favorite was to include statistics about the deaths in the turbulent times following (and preceding) the first Thanksgiving.

Sometimes I would point out that if there hadn’t been a smallpox outbreak amongst the Pokanoket brought to them via the Europeans, their leader, Oasamequin, wouldn’t have even had to make the alliance with the Pilgrims at all.  In reality, he could have let them starve to death.  All pretty gloomy stuff.

When Kip died in November of last year, I really thought about what he always said when I would post that sort of thing.  He would point out how although it may be true, I could focus on something positive in the world, instead of always something negative, even if I thought I was “shedding light” on some of America’s darkest times.

So last Thanksgiving I broke with tradition.  I instead posted a painting by Camille Pissaro entitled The Crystal Palace.  I wanted to “shed light” on a successful refugee who became the father of Impressionism.  You can read what I wrote last year here:  The Crystal Palace.  So in an attempt to keep with the positivity, I have chosen the painting The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner to share with you today.

Henry Ossawa Tanner is generally considered a realist painter, although I find that is a bit of a misnomer.  He did have highly realistic paintings, but he had others that were Impressionistic.  He was a painter of portraits, landscapes, Biblical scenes, and is even sometimes categorized as a Mystic painter.  He really has one of the most diverse libraries of work of any painter I’m aware of.  In this particular work, you can plainly seen the influence of his teacher, the great Realist Thomas Eakins.

Henry’s father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  His mother was born a slave and escaped via the Underground Railroad.  He grew up in Pittsburgh and became the first and most successful African-American student accepted into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Although he was successful in the States, he didn’t find true freedom until he went to Europe.  In Paris, he could live without the racism he endured during Reconstruction in a Southern leaning city.  He was free to marry his Swedish-American opera singer bride.

In Europe he wasn’t a successful “colored” artist.  There he was a highly acclaimed American artist.  The color of his skin didn’t define his artwork, his talent did.  He became the first African-American in history to have his works shown in a Paris Salon.

Henry O. Tanner went on to work for the Red Cross Public Information Department during World War I where he painted the front lines.  In 1923 he became a knight of the Legion of Honor for his service.

The Thankful Poor was painted on a visit back to the States in 1894.  This was done shortly after his award-winning The Banjo Lesson was met with acclaim all over Europe.  I like to believe both paintings share the same subjects, although I can’t find any sources to back up that theory.  However, the older man and child appear to be in the same room in both paintings.

This painting really expresses to me what Thanksgiving is actually about.  The man and child are bowing their heads to give thanks over their small, but sufficient meal.  The blended color of the walls is echoed in the table covering, giving a wonderfully muted yet colorful backdrop.  It really allows the folds in the man’s shirt and the curls on the boy’s head to really pop.

The grandfather figure’s face is in shadow, so you can’t see his features well.  The boy, conversely, is bathed in light.  The glow on the boy’s face from the light streaming through the window is nearly angelic.  To me, this seems like a metaphor for their lives.  The man has come through dark times, the boy has a bright future.

I imagine the man thanking God for his ability to have survived through his hardships, while asking for protection over his young grandson.  The boy maybe thanking God for having his grandfather there to protect him and support him and provide him with the meal.  That’s the beauty of art, it’s up to you to decide what it means.

However you spend this Thanksgiving, take a minute to be thankful for those around you.  Remember not only the parts of their lives they share with you, but those parts without you.  Be grateful for everything they have gone through to get to where they are today, and be hopeful for their future.

Happy Thanksgiving!

henry-ossawa-tanner-banjo-lesson-resized-600

The Banjo Lesson, 1893