The belching smokestacks and effluents of industry transformed the marine and land vistas of England. Work, too, was transformed as laborers toiled in continuous shifts to meet the demands of a growing economy and population for fuel and other raw material. The changes wrought in English life by industrialism intrigued Turner and captured his imagination. Yet, the effects of nature equally enthralled the artist.
Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight captures and juxtaposes these two themes. The moon’s iridescent, nocturnal glow and a sense of calm pervade the painting as you imagine water slapping rhythmically against the buoys in the foreground and paddles propelling the rowboat quietly across the harbor. By contrast, teams of workers servicing the thicket of boats anchored in the harbor bustle under fiery braziers and a cloud of soot at the painting’s edges, suggesting an even more extensive landscape of industry that continues just out of view. In the far background, flaming smokestacks are visible and the pollutants they emitted may have contributed to the refracted, shimmering quality of the light in the painting. Turner mingles the imperatives of industry with the enduring and sometimes inexpressible values of nature.