The nasty business of whaling recounted in works of art

by | Dec 13, 2021 | Maritime Art, Culture and History

Some anti-whaling activists may look askance at artworks that show the hunting and killing of whales. They probably can’t be blamed. Whaling is nasty, bloody business. The reality, though, is that it is part of the maritime heritage of a good number of countries.

Some nations may have restricted or put a stop to whaling, but they have preserved their whaling tradition in art. A person who rejects such art on moral grounds might as well deep-six all kinds of art that depict war or any form of violence.

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

 — Captain Ahab, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or The Whale

‘Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!’
Oil on canvas, exhibited 1846
Photo credit: Tate.
Courtesy of Art UK under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence

Capturing a Sperm whale
Coloured aquatint, 1835
John William Hill (American, 1812–1879); after: William Page (American, 1811–1885)
Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery

Whalers at an ice floe
Pencil and watercolour drawing, 1830–1860
Albertus van Beest (Dutch, 1820–1860)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Whaling at Goto in Hizen Province (from the series One Hundred Famous Views of the Provinces)
Ukiyo-e; polychrome woodblock print, 1859
Utagawa Hiroshige II (Japanese, 1826–1869)
Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery

Beach with Fishermen Cutting up a Whale
Engraving, early to mid-17th century
Magdalena de Passe (Dutch, c. 1596–1638); after Adam Willaerts (Flemish, 1577–1664)
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves
Oil on canvas, exhibited 1846
Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851)
Photo credit: Tate.
Courtesy of Art UK under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence

~ Barista Uno

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