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Frame by Frame

Sebastian Smee captivated by ‘Whale and Calf’

NEW BEDFORD WHALING MUSEUM

Beyond being as clear as possible about what it shows, there’s not much to say about this picture. It’s a small painting by an unknown American whaleman artist. It was painted around 1830, and it hangs in the New Bedford Whaling Museum (an extraordinary place with which no New Englander should be unfamiliar).

What it shows is a whale calf in the mouth of its mother.

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She is not, of course, eating it. (Those teeth are useless.) She is trying to rescue it. And that, my friends, was all part of the whalers’ fiendish plan.

If whalers — big drivers of the economy in early industrial America — could get their harpoons into a whale calf they never missed their chance, because harpooning the baby was a perfect way to lure in the adult. The bigger the whale, the more oil.

Proof positive that humans are more intelligent than whales?

That would be one way to look at it. Another might be to say that intelligence is one thing, while the bonds of instinct are another. The whalers (look at them in their small, frail craft; admire their trust in the process!) were smart only insofar as they knew how to exploit those bonds. Switch the species and most human mothers would do exactly the same.

There are four whales in this picture, as well as four whaling boats and a “mother ship.” (Will she come to the whalers’ rescue if things go awry? Presumably she would try.) Three of the whales are already spraying blood. Only the mother’s fate seems undecided.

I can’t think of another picture so small that depicts such an awesome sight. Look at the mother whale soaring out of the sea, dwarfing everything around her! Consider, too, the quantities of salty blood entering the even saltier sea, much of it already pouring forth from the calf’s flank and spout.

Did the painter really witness this scene? One can only imagine what it might have felt like.

He certainly painted it beautifully. The style is naive. But the movement of the waves and the froth churning around the mother whale feel real enough; the sky’s graduated light feels observed, not schematic, and the shading in the sails of the ship gives it a convincing three-dimensional presence.

In the background to the left, note that the rowers’ oars are in the air as their crewmate goes in for the kill. The hiatus in their efforts reminds us of the proximity whalers required in order to execute their tasks.

The word “treachery” haunts the whole business. So, too, does “courage.”

Imagine now their beating hearts.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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