Moby Dick (1987-1996)

Inspired by Moby Dick, Charley Reuvers created a series of eight etchings and eight paintings between 1987 and 1996.

The epic novel by the American writer Herman Melville was published in 1851. It deals with the monomaniacal hunt of Captain Ahab for Moby Dick, an albino sperm whale that bit off Ahab’s leg during a previous encounter. The book offers a wondrous mix of Shakespearean and biblical imagery. Melville uses a broad variety of stylistic devices and registers, such as sermons, monologues, stage directions, scientific discourses and narrative modes like stream-of-consciousness.

Moby Dick is both an introduction to cetology and whaling, and an adventure story. The novel is crammed with metaphors and hidden meanings, and offers contemplations about essential subjects such as the reliability of knowledge through observation and perception, free will versus predestination, good and evil, and the issue of the existence or non-existence of gods and demons, be they Calvinist, voodoo or Zoroastrian.


In an interview in 2013, Charley Reuvers stated that he initially did not have the vaguest idea how to take on Moby Dick. When he based an earlier project on the libretto for the ballet The Wedding party on the Eiffel Tower by Jean Cocteau (1921), he had opted in favour of a graphic novel, which was published serially in the bimonthly literary magazine De Revisor between 1977 and 1980. It was inescapable that Reuvers intended to do something with Moby Dick. After reading the book for the first time in the Illustrated Classics edition at the age of ten, he remained enchanted by the story many years later.

Eventually, he found the solution for the outline of this project by utilising the concept of a two-dimensional museum of silent witnesses appearing in Moby Dick. Reuvers: ‘I was inspired by the numerous experiences and impressions that I had in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam during my boyhood. In one fell swoop it became possible to put into service for this project the enormous collection of colourful and often incomprehensible objects that had always attracted me. This worked out superbly. There were enough suitable elements to be found that had not been used before in any expressive way relating to Moby Dick.’

Point of View

With the choice for a two-dimensional museum, the Moby Dick-series of Reuvers stands out from the work of most other artists and illustrators who had devoted themselves to the novel, and who had chosen only to represent the dramatic highlights of the story. Reuvers, however, appears to be in good company among artists like Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Sam Francis and Robert Indiana, who all preferred a more abstract way of acting out the story line. Reuvers displays the epic events in an almost roundabout way by depicting objects and documents that make their appearance in Moby Dick, like photographs, film stills, reproductions of the title page of books, sea charts, tarot and playing cards, labels and examples of calligraphy.

Trompe l’Oeil

As a technique, Reuvers opted for the colour etching. He split the book into eight parts, which resulted in eight etchings. The number of colours he applied was initially rather modest with only three colours in the first etching. However, this changed quickly in the course of the series, peaking with a five-colour run necessary for the representation of the cover of the formerly mentioned Illustrated Classics in the final etching of the series. The main colour in five of the etchings was red or sepia, and blue in the other three. The complete set of etchings was printed six times. Because Reuvers also depicts the shadows of many objects, the work bears a clear resemblance to paintings in the tradition of the trompe l’oeil, represented by artists like Cornelis Gijsbrechts, Raphaelle Peale and Samuel van Hoogstraten.


Every etching or painting was preceded by elaborate research. In addition to the Penguin edition of Moby Dick, annotated by Harold Beaver, Reuvers studied La Contre-bible de Melville by Viola Sachs, Melville log by Jay Leyda, The Yankee Whaler by Clifford Ashley, Whales by A.B.C. Whipple, and the Encyclopédie Larousse.

As secondary sources, among others, he used: The New England Indians by C. Keith Wilbur, Evelyn Rossiter’s Egyptisch dodenboek, The Osiris Rite by Ernest Wallis Budges, Greek Myths by Robert Graves, the Elseviers gids voor zeevogels, Whales by Jean Cousteau, Anarcharsis Cloots by Bernd Schminies and L’Encyclopédie (Marine) by Diderot & D’Alembert.

Furthermore, Reuvers photocopied many illustrations from books in the municipal library of Amsterdam, and he visited not only the aforementioned Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, but also the Amsterdam Scheepvaartmuseum, the natural history museum Naturalis in Leiden, the Jardin des Plantes and the Musée de l’homme in Paris, and the Musée océanographique in Monaco.

To find out exactly how a whaler and a whaleboat were constructed, he made models in a scale of 1:50 and 1:25. It was clear that Reuvers took great pains for his work, as he collected copies of illustrations and texts in folders that kept growing bulkier during this lengthy project.

Etch, Paint and Assemble

Even though Reuvers spent several years at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, he had never really learned to etch. The technique was eventually explained to him by friends. The series of etchings, therefore, also reveals the considerable improvement in his craftmanship. Still, during the process, Reuvers became increasingly aware of the limitations of etching as a technique. After the completion of the eight etchings, he found that he had not made use of all the material regarding the content of Moby Dick and decided to start afresh, but this time with acrylic paint on canvas.

Besides the painted objects, which had an even more pronounced trompe l’oeil effect than the etchings, he added real objects, such as pieces of text and images from Larousse, a booklet, a watch, a tress of hair or his father’s razor.

For the first painting, Reuvers based himself completely on the first etching, but in the next paintings, he began diversifying further, and his references became more open and personal. Some representations, such as the title page of the psalm book of Isaac Watts (see: An Anacharsis Clootz deputation) or the veduta (see: Whale-balls for breakfast), have been made up partially or completely by Reuvers.

The Return of the Headhunters

I first met Charley Reuvers in the cafeteria of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in 1968. My attention was fixed immediately on a stack of curious LP’s on top of his table. The upper album was a collection of recordings of the Dayak from Borneo, titled: The Return of the Headhunters. The other records concerned music from Mauritania, Bali and – if I am not mistaken – Burundi and the Middle East.

After this first meeting, we kept in touch, be it intermittently from time to time. Even before he had finished the final paintings, we organised an exhibition about Moby Dick in the artists’ initiative W139 in Amsterdam. In addition to many of the aforementioned etchings and paintings, the exhibition also included ship models and combinations of objects such as skulls, foetuses in formaldehyde and small wax work figures that were created by harpooners. At the vernissage, rum was served and chanties were sung by a sailors choir.

New York and Paris

After he had completed the paintings, Reuvers approached Elizabeth Schulz. She had only recently published Unpainted to the last, a study about Moby Dick in 20th century American art. She invited Reuvers to participate in an exhibition about Moby Dick at the Hofstra University in New York, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick. The exhibition took place one month after 9/11. The impact of the attack on the cultural climate in the United States led to the cancellation of the plan to exhibit Reuvers’ work on Moby Dick at several other American universities. Then, via a companion of a lady friend who studied American Literature at Paris Huit, Charley met Viola Sachs. She wanted to organize an exhibition of his work in the French capital, but this plan also did not get off the ground. It was not until 2013 that Reuvers could show his complete works on Moby Dick for the first time in WG Kunst in Amsterdam.