The story of how the painting of an atrocity came to belong to William Sturgis Hooper Lothrop, the ambitious young man who traveled to Puerto Rico in a steamship transporting postal employees in 1898, adds threads to the thick fabric of images, stories, decrees, people and other goods circulating between the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.
Shortly before the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, the painting –the visual commemoration of a massacre transformed into a seascape– began its voyage to the oceans of America. The Bostonian Charles Eliot Norton was the intermediary between the unique sensibility of its first owner, the critic John Ruskin, and the establishment of a chair of Aesthetics at Harvard University. Norton founded the chair in 1874, when the riches accumulated by the merchants and bankers of Boston aspired to an upgrade in the scale of refinement. It was no longer enough to count coins, pay tithes to the church, and contribute to the restoration of stained glass windows and to the founding of poor houses and orphanages. There was no reason to live in comfort without luxuries, or to be simply content with exclusive access to a university for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first families, organized in a hierarchy that began with the Adams, Cabots and Lowells and ended, perhaps, with a dull intellectual like William´s father. Man lives to die in peace with his conscience, but life does not have to turn its back to beauty.
In a Europe destroyed and rebuilt by the proliferation of factories and machines the impoverished nobility auctioned their assets at good prices. American heiresses, not well priced in the past, began to be valued more for their fortunes than for their rough manners and ways of walking, acquired in climbing the slope of Beacon Street on foot to go shopping and avoid the temptation to nap. They were frank, they laughed without restraining the vulgarity of their laughter, their cheeks seemed too rough because of the contact of sea airs.
The desire to adorn capital with beauty coincided with Norton's first trips to Europe. The fate of the painting owes something to Norton´s high regard for Ruskin; to the fact that the critic introduced him to the work of John Mallard Taylor Turner; to their friendship coinciding in time with the personality of a millionaire Yankee collector. Those intimate relationships tipped the balance of cultural relations. It was Norton who made it possible for Slave Ship to begin its journey from north to north. He saw it for the first time in the critic's house, where it seemed to be consumed with brightness in the gray surroundings. Ruskin's personality, nervous, almost hysterical, tortured by desires that his sensibility was incapable of assimilating and excusing with benevolence, was submerged in the cult of a frightful scene, misplaced in that piece of cloth, the source of a haunting light.