Partly in shadow, a group of emigrants look out from the deck of a vessel, some waving handkerchiefs, but otherwise passive participants. An increasing stretch of water to the right emphasises their separation from their distraught loved ones on the quay.
This large-scale painting, both ambitious and complex in conception, is the key mid-19th century image addressing emigration. It focuses on the reactions of those left behind as a ship departs, who are a mix of genders and social classes.
O’Neil attempted to invest his paintings with an emotional intensity that conveyed appropriate sentiments to the narrative. Mid-Victorian audiences worked their way around paintings such as The Parting Cheer by using recognisable figures in the crowd as narrative signposts to identify social types, recognising differences in the detailed costumes and the range of responses.
Children provide key access points to the story and highlight the mix of people. They provide a source of comfort and solace, acting as affirmation of the continuity of the next generation.
O’Neil’s image reflects the rigidity of the class system, but with middle and working classes united in a display of grief. People emigrated to seek a better life overseas, the greatest number seeking a new life in America. The Thames is shown as an industrial landscape, with smoking chimneys and a forest of ships’ masts. Such alienating effects of modernity underscore the historical reasons for mass migration.