A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture...

In chapter 3 of Herman Melville's seminal whaling novel, Moby Dick (1851), the narrator comes across a painting of whaling in an inn. Scholars have long thought that Melville might have been referring to Turner's images in the description. Certainly, the narrator captures how different many viewers found it to understand Turner's paintings.

“A very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist […] had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft-repeated ponderings, […] you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering at the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet there was a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what the marvelous painting meant”.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851), chapter 3