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New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art opens exhibit of Turner whaling paintings
Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851) Whalers Ca. 1845 Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 48 ¼ in. (91.8 x 122.6 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896.

by Mariano Andrade

NEW YORK (AFP).- Four paintings by JMW Turner depicting 18th and 19th century commercial whaling and their possible link to "Moby Dick" are the focus of an exhibit on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Turner's Whaling Pictures" features works done in the 1840s as the Briton Turner was near the end of his career and life.

This is the first time all four have been shown together, with one owned by the Met and three on loan from London, said curator Alison Hokanson.

Seascapes were a favorite of Turner, and in this case he addressed the legendary era of commercial whaling, in which sailing ships would spend years at sea, sometimes in remote places like the South Pacific, hunting down those mighty creatures to extract oil used in lamps.

"It was one of the last of Turner's painting campaigns, a new subject," Hokanson said Monday as she presented the 1.2 meter by 90 cm (4 ft X 3 ft) paintings to the media. They will be on display through August 7.

Two of the paintings depict the hunt itself, in which whalers in small boats hurled harpoons at the whale from a short distance.

The other two address the carving up of whales to obtain oil, which was the industry's lifeblood.

But all four scenes are presented in a sort of artistic haze: they are not neat, clean, picture-perfect representations. Rather, it's as if the brutal action of whaling, the weather and the enormity of the sea come together to blur one's view.

"Critics were astonished by the dynamic, the colors," said Hokanson.

People were even frustrated at times as they tried to discern exactly what was happening in these paintings, she said.

Melville's inspiration?
The commercial whaling era served as inspiration for other artists, such as Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick" -- the tale of Captain Ahab, obsessed with hunting down and killing a great white which on a previous voyage had bitten off his leg.

The exhibit provides an opportunity to consider whether the Turner paintings influenced Melville, whose book was published in 1851, the year Turner died.

"Aspects of Melville's novel are strikingly evocative of Turner's style," the Met says on its website.

"Melville knew about Turner's paintings. It cannot be proven he saw them," Hokanson said. Melville visited London in 1849.

At the exhibit, one wall features a Moby Dick passage that describes a large oil painting depicting a whale hunt very similar to one in a Turner painting. This suggests Melville did see the Turner works.

It is true that both men drew inspiration from an illustrated book entitled "The Natural History of the Sperm Whale," published in 1839 by Thomas Beale, a whaling ship physician. 

The Met exhibit also includes related watercolors by Turner, whaling artefacts such as a harpoon and an oil lamp, a first edition "Moby Dick" and a copy of Beale's book.

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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