Sperm Whaling

The Chase

Original content by: Sally Motycka

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Born in 1804 in New Bedford, MA, Benjamin Russell belonged to a family of whaling merchants who were well established in the city.  He grew up during a time of good fortune, and tried his hand working in the office of a whaling agent located on Water Street in New Bedford.  Soon, young Russell became the director of the Old Marine Bank.  Evidently, he showed more aptitude for drawing than business, often to the displeasure of his superiors.  He was frequently found sketching cartoons during meetings, and as a result, his mercantile career was short lived.

Benjamin Russell’s self-taught art education took place during his four years sailing aboard the whale ship Kutusoff.  Russell’s life experiences and love for sketching, along with his acute observational sensitivity, yielded images with impeccable detail that was often unseen in the marine art of his contemporaries.  Thus, Russell began his career as a maritime painter – a career that he continued well into his 70s.  Sketching in pencil and a fine brush-wash of India ink, Russell’s images were rendered with mastered accuracy rather than artistic intention. 

The intricacies in Benjamin Russell’s work present the viewer with specifics left out by many other marine artists.  Due to Russell’s ability to render sails, rigging, and other details so specifically (often from experience and memory), and his skills as an accomplished draftsman, he was called upon to create ship portraits for insurance purposes (much the same as one would use a photograph today).  Lithographic images of Russell’s work were popular in homes all over New Bedford.

The piece shown above, “Sperm Whales – The Chase”, depicts two whaleboats pursuing a sperm whale.  Three whale ships can be seen in the background, while two whaleboats are in the foreground.  In the whaleboats, boatsteerers are seen with their harpoons raised.  As they chase the whale, one can image that the call “thar She blows!” was sounded, as several whales can be seen spouting as they surface.


Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why do you think people would want such graphic images hanging in their homes? What does this tell you about the whaling industry at this time?
  2. Do you think Benjamin Russell's family ties influenced his later career? Do you think it would have been easy for him to do something else with his life (for example, become a farmer, or a blacksmith)?
  3. Benjamin Russell's work was extremely detailed - something that was less common among other maritime artists at the time. Why do you think this was?