Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

So, now that we’ve heard all about (and seen, thanks to the magic of the internet) some truly awful pictures of whales, it’s time for the good ones!


Or, barring that, at least the ones that are acceptable, at a base level. Even the finest artists do not quite live up to the reality of the sperm whale, if Ishmael is to be believed.

SUMMARY: Ishmael describes those artists who at least manage to get the general shape of the whale correct. Real Life Whale Man Thomas Beale is the artist behind the most accurate pictures of whales. J. Ross Browne, another whaler, also draws very accurate whales, but is not a very skilled artist. The arctic explorer William Scoresby drew some good right whales, but got their scale all wrong. The French painter Ambroise Louis Garneray is the only person who has really captured the action of a whale hunt, though his actual whales are horrifically inaccurate.

Another very straightforward chapter, even moreso than the last one. Basically just a list of good artists, and even specific good individual pictures of whales. Of course, none of them are perfect, still. There is no replacement for going out and seeing a whale yourself, but there are options if you want get the general idea.

At the beginning of the chapter, Ishmael briefly considers going through some other stories about whaling, but decides there just isn’t time, which is saying something:

In connexion with the monstrous pictures of whales, I am strongly tempted here to enter upon those still more monstrous stories of them which are to be found in certain books, both ancient and modern, especially in Pliny, Purchas, Hackluyt, Harris, Cuvier, etc. But I pass that matter by.

Imagine! Ishmael deciding to let a matter pass by instead of writing on it for dozens of pages. Will wonders never cease?

As you’d expect, the most accurate pictures of whales come from whalers, those with the most direct experience of seeing them in action. William Scoresby, an English arctic explorer from the early 19th century, created some of the absolute best. As well as Beale, another English naturalist who spent some time in the north Atlantic, though he mostly drew right whales and not sperm whales.


A fun little side note that I think we’ll get to later (or maybe I missed in Cetology?) is the reason that right whales are called “right” whales. They look like your classic baleen whale, with the giant mouth that has a big filter in it. They live only in the frigid northern waters, and while you can extract oil from them, they lack the extremely fine spermaceti that is found in sperm whales.

For a long time, though, they were the primary prey of whalers, as they are easier to find and not as dangerous as sperm whales. So, they are right whales because they’re the “right” one to hunt!

Anyway, the thing that unites these various whaling artists is their accuracy, not necessarily their skill. These are more scientific illustrations than pieces of art that are meant to convey action. He even notes that while J. Ross Browne gets the shape of the sperm whale correct, he is a pretty poor artist, being more famous for his writing.

J. Ross Browne

So, on to the second part of the chapter title: true pictures of whaling scenes. Ishmael has found that several French painters have been able to capture the chaotic and terrifying feeling of being in deadly combat with a whale, even as their actual whale anatomy is just as awful as some of the examples from the last chapter.

Ambroise Louis Garneray (who Ishmael simply calls “Garnery”) is the primary example. For while the exact details are lacking, Garneray’s expertise at painting gives him the skills to actually portray what it is like to hunt a whale, even without having actually ever done it himself. Ishmael chalks it up the a sort of cultural facet of the French that they are very good at depicting action, in general. Whereas the English and Americans get caught up in trying to get every detail right, they lose the greater effect.

For the most part, the English and American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid. Even Scoresby, the justly renowned Right whaleman, after giving us a stiff full length of the Greenland whale, and three or four delicate miniatures of narwhales and porpoises, treats us to a series of classical engravings of boat hooks, chopping knives, and grapnels; and with the microscopic diligence of a Leuwenhoeck submits to the inspection of a shivering world ninety-six fac-similes of magnified Arctic snow crystals.

There is a difference between recreating a thing that is accurate and a thing that is true. But even that is a difficult proposition in this world of subjective experiences and wildly different reactions to the same events. Perhaps Scoresby and Beale did recreate their experiences, viewing things with a kind of scientific remove from the quarter-deck rather than the wild chaos of the front of the whale boat.


In the last paragraph, Ishmael talks about a couple more engravings that caught his eye as especially true-to-life.

One of them, though not precisely adapted to our present purpose, nevertheless deserves mention on other accounts. It is a quiet noon-scene among the isles of the Pacific; a French whaler anchored, inshore, in a calm, and lazily taking water on board; the loosened sails of the ship, and the long leaves of the palms in the background, both drooping together in the breezeless air. The effect is very fine, when considered with reference to its presenting the hardy fishermen under one of their few aspects of oriental repose.

It brings to mind the old oil painting from way back at the Spouter-Inn. The ability of a piece of art to communicate a mood, even if it is difficult to suss out the exact details. The way that the action of interpreting the art itself is in communication with the art, another whole new experience never dreamed by the artist.

It’s very easy to get lost in jargon, but this is what is meant by the notion that interpretation of art is art in and of itself. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around because it’s not really something that’s visible most of the time. Unless someone like Melville writes a thing about appreciating a particular painting in a particular light because of his experiences, then it’s easy to think that everyone is just consuming things the same way that you do.


It’s not just that taste is unique to every person, is that the subjective experience of literally everything is unique for every person. The general beliefs and experiences that are assigned to group along different lines are just that: very general. Be careful how your build your beliefs and philosophies around supposedly universal experiences and feelings. There are always exceptions.

Anyway, the other point I wanted to hit, before I got a little off-track with philosophizing, as is my wont, was about the skill of making art. Which is, as it turns out, a skill in and of itself, not something that simply comes along with other life skills and experiences.

The French painters have a particular style, and an ability to portray action that the more scientific-minded English and Americans lack. The ability to perfectly recreate what you see is not the same as being able to portray any of the same feelings and emotions that it gives rise to within you. Communicating through aesthetics is a skill, which is independent of any other consideration in art.

It also says nothing about morality one way or another, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish that I already covered.

H. Durand

As with all things, it is even more complicated than it first appears. All of this communication through aesthetic means also carries a heavy cultural component. Both in terms of communicating normative claims (ie, moral ones) but also emotional. There is very little that is actually in-born in humans, in terms of aesthetic judgments.

Another fun little chapter! I didn’t go quite as far off the tracks this time, I don’t think. These ones really benefit from the addition of visual aids.

We’re not done yet with images of whales, but the next chapter takes on a bit of a different tone. More of the old dreamy, philosophical take rather than specific criticism.

Until next time, shipmates!

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