America's First Public Turner: How Ruskin Sold the Slave Ship to New York
Scott, Nancy, British Art Journal
It is really a great satisfaction to know that we are at last to have so splendid a specimen of Turner's genius in America.
Charles Eliot Norton to William Tilden Blodgett, 24 January 1872 (1)
It is right that it should be in America, and I am well pleased in every way, and always.
John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, 28 January 1872 (2)
It has long been known that John Taylor Johnston (1820-93) (Pl 1b), first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the collector who bought JMW Turner's landmark painting, The Slave Ship, from John Ruskin, and exhibited it for the first time in America (Pl 2). (3) What is under investigation in this study is the sale of this important work, the motive for the transaction, and the reception history of The Slave Ship in New York from the time of its first unveiling in Johnston's private gallery at 8 Fifth Avenue, New York (Pl la), and soon after in the inaugural exhibition of the new Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1872. The public visibility of The Slave Ship upon its arrival in America has not been studied adequately. The hitherto widely accepted assumption, that it was initially hidden from public view because it was in two private collections until 1899, is refuted by numerous sources. A portion of the newly examined material comes from a four-way correspondence, parts of which have never been published.
In fact, the famous Turner painting was on public view in New York City from 11 April 1872 in Johnston's private gallery. His gallery was admittedly open only to a select invited audience, but over two hundred influential guests attended the night of its opening. The debut of the famous work was reported in the press. The canvas was then placed on loan by the middle of May 1872 at the newly opened Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York's first civic art museum, where it became available to a broader public and press commentary.
The presence of Turner's Slave Ship in the Metropolitan Museum's inaugural year exhibition has been missed by most scholars because it was a late addition, hors de catalogue, when the principal works on exhibit were the 'Founding Purchase', 174 paintings of the Dutch and Flemish schools. In addition, prominent critics of the Met's first showing, such as Henry James, writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 1872, focused only on the Old Masters, and did not discuss the two works of art put on view from the John Taylor Johnston private collection. (4) It is to lesser-known figures, such as the artist Christopher Pearse Cranch, and the lawyer George Templeton Strong, that we owe the first written reactions to the appearance of Turner's Slave Ship on American shores. (5)
The testimony of these witnesses, preserved in accounts of the time and, more importantly, in significant correspondence recently discovered in the Metropolitan Museum archives and at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, confirm that The Slave Ship was meant to be the first Turner oil publicly exhibited in the United States. To be sure, there was the painting Staffa: Fingal's Cave (Pl 3), which is properly known as the first Turner painting in America, but it was never a publicly accessible work until 1877, when the Lenox Library opened to a audience admitted by advance ticket only. (6) During the period The Slave Ship was frequently on view either at the Johnston gallery, or in the Met's various loan exhibits from 1872 until 1876, the Staffa in contrast remained at the private home of Colonel James Lenox. Having acquired the Staffa in 1845 through CR Leslie, Lenox himself remarked that his Turner was 'not for the multitude'. (7) In light of The Slave Ship's thematic link to the great issue of the recent sacrifices of the Civil War, slavery, and the painting's advance reputation created by Ruskin's writing, its presence and visibility in America were immediately vigorously debated and discussed by contemporaries. …