(Written 1 Aug 2011)

Dear All, 

The Slave Ship” or “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on” by the British artist J. M. W. Turner was first exhibited in 1840 and is presently in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is a controversial work and so I enjoyed Mark Twain’s parody of John Ruskin’s view of the painting. You may know that Ruskin was a great supporter of Turner. It seems that Ruskin has written of the painting: “What a red rag is to a bull, Turner’s Slave Ship was to me, before I studied art.”

Twain takes it from there:

“Mr Ruskin is educated up to a point where that picture throws him into as mad an ecstasy of pleasure as it used to throw me into one of rage, last year, when I was ignorant. His cultivation enables him – and me, now – to see water in that glaring yellow mud, and natural effects in those lurid explosions of mixed smoke and flame, and crimson sunset glories; it reconciles him – and me, now – to the floating or iron cable-chains and other unfloatable things; it reconciles us to fishes swimming around on top of the mud – I mean the water. The most of the picture is a manifest impossibility – that is to say, a lie; and only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie. But it enabled Mr Ruskin to do it, and it has enabled me to do it, and I am thankful for it. A Boston newspaper reporter went and took a look at the Slave Ship floundering about in that fierce conflagration of reds and yellows, and said it reminded him of a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes. In my then uneducated state, that went home to my non-cultivation, and I thought here is a man with an unobstructed eye. Mr Ruskin would have said: This person is an ass. That is what I would say, now.”

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1880), Part 4, Ch. 24.