All around town I see posters for a new film, In the Heart of the Sea. It promises star power, stud power and a really really big fish.
This movie is based on a book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick. It recounts the tragedy of the Essex, a whaling ship that was destroyed in 1820 in an unprecedented whale attack. When writer Herman Melville heard the story some time later, he was inspired to write Moby Dick. So, to my limited knowledge, this tragic event inspired one book in the 19th century, at least 5 films and a miniseries in the 20th century, another book and film in the 21st century, and one painting, for sure, that I know about. Because I painted it.
You might ask yourself, “Why all the hub-bub?”. Well, it’s a hell of a story. Here’s a summary: The Nantucket-based crew were out doing what they did best, in a remote location about halfway between Asia and South America (ie- as far from land as you could get in any direction). The pecking order in the perilous job of 19th century professional whaling went something like this:
- The Sea: it will take you out at a whim and without explanation.
- The Weather: ditto.
- Man: Not super big or super strong, but those crafty brain powers and opposable thumbs are rearranging his position in the Natural Order.
- The Beasts: Creatures great and small, ranging from deadly to harmless, but generally not known for forethought or strategy.
The whalers considered themselves the hunters, not the prey. Most of the crew were in fact off hunting at the time, in smaller vessels with low sides built specifically for fast chases and short distances. The remaining crew were still onboard the Essex when, without warning, a sperm whale began ramming the ship. The sailors on board saw the creature attack “with vengeance and fury”- in short, with intent. With the ruthlessness and guile of a man. In an instant, the above-noted pecking order was rearranged.
The hardships that they faced during their time at sea were transformative physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They were at the mercy of an indifferent environment, their boats were built up (inadequately) to keep the sea water and equatorial sun at bay. Their universe shrank to the 20 feet or so of hope and misery that housed them. The boats were separated from each other at sea, and the men began to die. (Cannibalism was a regular enough feature of maritime disaster at this time that it was customary only to confess had you not had to resort to it to survive). If the sea or a crewmates’ death had not provided for the men, they drew straws to determine who would be the next to sacrifice his life that others might live.
So, horrible. And, oddly, this was the part of the story that captivated me enough to paint it. Not because I’m a ghoul (at least, not more ghoulish than average), but because I admired their endurance and their sense of duty to one another. Eight of the original 20 men were eventually rescued, after 3 months at sea. Those who survived in the boats held themselves together throughout starvation, exposure and hallucinations. They conversed at length with their departed crewmates. They filled their ragged clothing with the bones of the men they had served with, refusing to give them up even after their rescue. Their true adversaries, the blinding sea and the scorching sun, were blocked physically and psychologically, so that only the small boats and the men, living and dead, remained.
My painting depicts one of the men as they were described at the time of his rescue: cowering from the sun in the bow of the buttressed whaleship, his skin burned from sun and salt. The frame of the boat formally mirrors his own visible skeleton, one container within another, rocking him gently on the waves, as in a cradle. The larger bones of his departed friends lie at his feet, bleached white. His own prominent anatomy remind us that this, too, could be his end.