A humpback whale shooting up suddenly from the depths of the ocean (pictured above) is something to behold. Not everyone, though, will get the chance to witness such a spectacle. I hope that the following works of art will give Marine Café Blog readers the pleasure of seeing whales as artists through the centuries saw them: as beautiful, mysterious and awe-inspiring creatures.

Painted Bowl with Whale, 6th–4th century B.C.
Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Double Spout Bottle, Killer Whale, 1st–6th century
Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Humans have been fascinated with whales since time immemorial as these two ancient pottery pieces from Peru show. In most primitive societies, whales evoked both fear and reverence, emotions that found expression in their art and crafts.

The final chase of Moby-Dick
I. W. Taber (American, ca. 1857 – 1933)
Illustration from Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1928)

In Melville’s great literary classic, Moby-Dick the whale is painted as a mysterious and menacing creature — the epitome of evil in the eyes of Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with killing it. This illustration shows the final chase of Moby-Dick which spells the end of the whaling ship Pequod and all its crew save for one, the narrator Ishmael. Click here to download a wonderful reading of the book’s last chapter (The Chase — Third Day).

Whale, circa 1270. Unknown artist
Image from The J. Paul Getty Museum

The story of Jonah and the Whale familiar to many has reinforced — unjustifiably so — the image of whales as deadly, fearsome creatures. Interestingly, the llustration from a 13th-century bestiary pictured above shows Jonah moments before he was swallowed by “a great fish” as recounted in Jonah: Chapter I of the King James version of the Bible. However, The J. Paul Getty Museum says the creature depicted is an aspidochelone, which is “a lot like a whale, but sneakier.”

Did Jonah really get swallowed by a whale? An article in the Texas-based Institute of Creation Research website provides an interesting perspective.

Jonah and the Whale: Rebirth Motif, 1937
John B. Flannagan (American, 1895-1942)
Image from the Brooklyn Museum

American sculptor John Bernard Flannagan puts his own spin on the saga of Jonah and the whale. His bluestone sculpture shows Jonah in a fetal position like a baby inside its mother’s womb. The whale is not a deathly, horrifying creature. It is a benign symbol of death and resurrection.

Japanese Fishermen Catching a Whale
from the series Famous Products of Japan (Dai Nihon bussan zue), 1877
Utagawa Hiroshige III (Japanese, 1842 – 1894)
Image from the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Japan has a long history of whaling — possibly going as far back as the Jomon period (10,000-300 BC), according to the Washington, DC-based Animal Welfare Institute. Japanese whale-hunting continues to this day amidst strong condemnation from whale lovers and activists. Stopping or at least scaling down the practice will require a sustained campaign by the Japanese people themselves, especially the youth.

“Elephant and Whale Screens” (left screen of pair of six-fold screens), 1797
Ito Jakuchu (Japanese, 1716-1800)
Image from The Japan Times

Ito Jakuchu’s rendition of a whale reflects the reverence for nature and love for beauty that imbue traditional Japanese art. This may seem paradoxical given Japan’s unenviable reputation as a nation of whale killers. But weren’t the samurai warriors into ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement)? The contradiction may well be present only in the non-Japanese mind.

Whalers, ca. 1845
Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851)
Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is interesting to note that the British were involved in whaling from the 17th century until the 1960s (see History of Whaling, Wikipedia). ‘Whalers’ by J.M.W. Turner, Britain’s favourite artist, serves to memorialise that era and the bravery of the men who fought battles with the whale.

Whales in the waves, from The Whale written and illustrated by Iliane Roels, 1969
Photo credit: Elizabeth on Flickr
Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 licence

Now that a lot more is known about whales, people are better able to appreciate these wonderful creatures. Works by contemporary artists are helping to propel whales to the public consciousness. This one is particularly eye-catching because of its childlike charm and vivacity.

Whaling Wall of Toronto, outdoor mural
Wyland (Robert Wyland, American, born 1956)
Photo by Bernard Spragg, NZ (2019)

‘Heavenly Waters’ is part of Wyland’s Whaling Walls, a series of large outdoor murals depicting whales (see the complete list here). Bernard Spragg, who took the picture, says it measures 146 feet long x 97 feet high. It is located at the foot of Jarvis St. and Queen’s Quay on the side of the Redpath Sugar Factory. The Whaling Walls have cemented Wyland’s reputation as an accomplished artist and dedicated conservationist. “My life is not only about the art, but conservation,” he declares on his personal website. “My ultimate goal is to leave a legacy that inspires people of all ages.”

Did you like this article?  Buy me a coffee

Let us know what you think of this article

Don't Miss the Brew!

Sign up to be notified of updates to Marine Cafe Blog

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest