Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851)


90.8 x 122.6 cm (35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

The Beal Gallery (Gallery 251)





When Turner exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy in 1840 he paired it with the following extract from his unfinished and unpublished poem “Fallacies of Hope” (1812):

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”

For the full text of Turner’s verse see A. J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 2nd ed., 1961, p. 474

One of Turner’s most celebrated works, Slave Ship is a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence, both human and elemental. The painting was based on a poem that described a slave ship caught in a typhoon, and on the true story of the slave ship Zong whose captain, in 1781, had thrown overboard sick and dying slaves so that he could collect insurance money available only for slaves “lost at sea.” Turner captures the horror of the event and terrifying grandeur of nature through hot, churning color and light that merge sea and sky. The critic John Ruskin, the first owner of Slave Ship, wrote, “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”


Consigned by the artist to his dealer, Thomas Griffith (b. 1795); December, 1843, sold by Griffith to John James Ruskin (b. 1785 - d. 1864), London, for his son, John Ruskin (b. 1819 - d. 1900) [see note 1]; April 15, 1869, Ruskin sale, Christie's, London, lot 50, unsold; 1872, sold by Ruskin, through William T. Blodgett (b. about 1832 - d. 1875), New York, to John Taylor Johnston (b. 1820 - d. 1893), New York [see note 2]; December 19-22, 1876, Johnston sale, American Art Association, New York, lot 76, to Alice Sturgis Hooper (b. 1841 - d. 1879), Boston [see note 3]; by descent to her nephew, William Sturgis Hooper Lothrop, Boston; 1899, sold by William Lothrop to the MFA for $65,000. (Accession Date: February 24, 1899)

[1] See Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, "The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner" (New Haven and London, 1984), text vol., pp. 236-237, cat. no. 385 and John Gage, ed., "Collected Correspondence of J. M. W. Turner" (Oxford, 1980), 282-283. [2] See Madeleine Fidell Beaufort and Jeanne K. Welcher, "Some Views of Art Buying in New York in the 1870s and 1880s," Oxford Art Journal 5, no. 1 (1982): 51. [3] For further on Alice Sturgis Hooper, her brother-in-law, Thornton K. Lothrop, and his son, William, see Andrew Walker, "From Private Sermon to Public Masterpiece: J. M. W. Turner's _The Slave Ship_ in Boston, 1876 - 1899," Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 6 (1994): 4-13.

Credit Line

Henry Lillie Pierce Fund