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Overview

Here Turner brings the great force of his romantic genius to a common scene of working–class men at hard labor. Although the subject of the painting is rooted in the grim realities of the industrial revolution, in Turner's hands it transcends the specifics of time and place and becomes an image of startling visual poetry.

An almost palpable flood of moonlight breaks through the clouds in a great vault that spans the banks of the channel and illuminates the sky and the water. The heavy impasto of the moon's reflection on the unbroken expanse of water rivals the radiance of the sky, where gradations of light create a powerful, swirling vortex.

To the right, the keelmen and the dark, flat–bottomed keels that carried the coal from Northumberland and Durham down the River Tyne are silhouetted against the orange and white flames from the torches, as the coal is transferred to the sailing ships. To the left, square riggers wait to sail out on the morning tide. Behind these ships Turner suggested the distant cluster of factories and ships with touches of gray paint and a few thin lines. Through the shadowy atmosphere ships' riggings, keels and keelmen, fiery torches, and reflections on the water merge into a richly textured surface pattern.

Inscription

lower left on buoy: JMWT

Provenance

Painted for Henry McConnel [1801-1871], The Polygon, Ardwick, Manchester; sold 1849 to John Naylor, Leighton Hall, Liverpool;[1] passed to his wife; purchased 1910 through (Dyer and Sons) by (Thos. Agnew & Sons, London); re-entered April 1910 in Agnew's stock in joint ownership with (Arthur J. Sulley & Co., London); purchased 13 June 1910 from (Arthur J. Sulley & Co., London) by Peter A.B. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park.

Exhibition History
1835
Modern Artists, Royal Manchester Institution, 1835, no. 260.
1835
Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1835, no. 24.
1854
Pictures, Exhibited at a Soirée, Given by John Buck Lloyd, Esquire, Mayor of Liverpool, Town Hall, Liverpool, 23 September 1854, no. 21.
1887
Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1887, no. 14.
1914
Paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. and J.M.W. Turner, R.A., M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, 1914, no. 36.
1974
Turner 1775-1851, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1974-1975, no. 513, color repro.
1983
J.M.W. Turner, Grand Palais, Paris, 1983-1984, no. 61, color repro.
1986
Turner, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 1986, no. 33, color repro.
1996
Turner, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1996, no. 18, repro.
1997
The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, no. 1, color repro., as Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night.
2003
Turner and Venice, Tate Britain, London; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2003-2004, no. 38, repro.
2003
Turner: The Late Seascapes, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown; Manchester Art Gallery; The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, 2003-2004, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 23, repro. (shown only in Williamstown).
2007
J.M.W. Turner, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dallas Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007-2008, no. 115, repro.
2012
Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude, The National Gallery, London, 2012, no. 55, repro.
2013
Turner & the Sea, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2013-2014, no. 86, repro. (shown only in Greenwich).
Bibliography
1835
Fraser's Magazine 12 (12 July 1835): 55.
1835
London Literary Gazette, no. 955, 9 May 1835: 298.
1835
Morning Chronicle, 6 May 1835.
1835
Spectator, 8, no. 358, 9 May 1835: 447.
1835
The Times (London), 23 May 1835.
1915
Roberts, William. Pictures in the Collection of P.A.B. Widener at Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania: British and Modern French Schools, Philadelphia, 1915: unpaginated, repro.
1923
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro.
1931
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 20, repro.
1942
Works of Art from the Widener Collection. Foreword by David Finley and John Walker. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 7.
1944
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 148, color repro.
1948
Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1948 (reprinted 1959): 97, repro.
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 148
1960
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 26.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 322, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 133.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:372, color repro.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 120, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 354, repro.
1975
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: no. 600, color repro.
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 99, pl. 87.
1979
Wilton, Andrew. The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner. London, 1979: 220, color pl. 217 (detail).
1980
Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner. Edited by John Gage. Oxford, 1980: 159, no. 198.
1984
Butlin, Martin, and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1977. (2d rev. ed., 1984): 1:no. 360; 2:color pl. 363.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 413, no. 585, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 405, repro.
1986
Treuherz, Julian. "The Turner Collector: Henry McConnel, Cotton Spinner." Turner Studies 6 (1986): 38-39, 40-41, 42, fig. 3.
1987
Wilton, Andrew. Turner in His Time. London, 1987: 186, repro. 253.
1992
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 278-280, color repro. 279.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 157, repro.
1997
Rodner, William S. J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
1997
The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997: no. 1.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: v, 298-299, 346-3471, no. 278, color repro.
2008
Schwander, Martin, ed. Venice: From Canaletto and Turner to Monet. Ostfildern, 2008: 61, 67 n. 14.
2011
Tabili, Laura. Global Migrants, Local Culture: Natives and Newcomers in Provincial England, 1841-1939. London, 2011: cover, color repro.
Technical Summary

The medium-weight canvas is plain woven; it was lined in 1967. The ground is white; it is very thickly applied and virtually masks the weave of the canvas. The painting is executed very richly with vigorous brushwork and much use of scumbles; the highlights in the water are thickly impasted, and the moon almost stands out in relief. The sky is painted very thinly and fluidly, probably with some use of watercolor; the rigging on the boats, especially on the left, may also be done in watercolor. The paint surface seems to be slightly abraded, and some of the highest impasto has been flattened during lining. There is scattered retouching throughout. The thick natural resin varnish, which has discolored yellow to a significant degree, was not removed before the dammar varnish was applied in 1967.

Explore This Work

The keelmen who are employed on the river Tyne are a remarkably hardy, robust, and laborious class of men, and are distinguished for their great muscular strength.... Their employment requires uncommon exertions. They have to contend, in their strong, clumsy vessels, with the perils of violent gales, dark nights, freshes in the river, and a crowded harbour.

Eneas Mackenzie, An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland

The River Tyne winds across northeast England to the North Sea, passing through the city of Newcastle, just a few miles from the river’s mouth. The site of vast coal mines, as well as the manufacture of glass and iron, Newcastle was at the fulcrum of the Industrial Revolution by the turn of the 19th century. Pictured here is the River Tyne at Shields, a town downriver from Newcastle proper. Coal mined nearby was loaded at Shields onto small flat-bottomed vessels called keels. The keels were navigated across the shallow river and under the low Tyneside bridge, their cargo transferred onto large ocean-going ships waiting in the harbor. The most frequent destination was London, the main consumer of coal from Newcastle.

Harbor Scene with Rising Sun

Claude Lorrain, Harbor Scene with Rising Sun (Le soleil levant), 1634.

Turner was influenced by the landscapes of 17th-century French artist Claude Lorrain.

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.

Joseph Mallord William Turner

John Linnel, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1838. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

About the Artist

Turner was a groundbreaking figure in setting the foundation of modern painting, anticipating impressionism and even abstract art with his interest in direct observation, light effects, and capturing aspects of contemporary life. Yet he also actively sought the approval of his peers and the public, mainly through the auspices of the Royal Academy of Art. This duality characterized much of his career. One writer (William Henry Pyne) noted in 1833, “A person cannot be a half admirer of Turner; his genius admits of no gradation of favor; universal, or not at all, must be the person’s admiration.”

Supported by his father, a barber and wigmaker, Turner enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art at age 14. From early on, he was devoted to landscape painting and drew inspiration from earlier, 17th-century Dutch and French landscape painters while seeking to innovate a new approach and elevate the status of landscape painting. He worked extensively in watercolor, uncommon at a time when oil paint was the most esteemed medium, and handled it with virtuosic skill. Eventually, he opened his own private gallery in London, where he could experiment and exhibit groupings of his work and promote his singular vision as he pleased. His work included dramatic marine and history paintings, and often reflected his interest in capturing the sublimity—or awesome and sometimes fearsome aspects—of nature.

Turner’s high ambitions were ill-matched with his general demeanor. Considered by many uncouth in his way of speaking, unsophisticated in appearance, and inattentive to the social refinements of the day, these deficits probably prevented him from achieving his ultimate goal, to become president of the Royal Academy, a prestigious position that, much like today’s high academic posts, required social dexterity and connections.

Regardless, Turner enjoyed the admiration of his peers and ultimately, numerous art patrons. The artist was named a full Royal Academician in 1802, the youngest to be so honored. His loose and romantic style coincided with the British rejection of the highly polished, classicized French styles of painting that had dominated European tastes in the previous century. The success he so prized was his, and on his death in 1851, he was honored by the British government and people and interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The Turner Bequest, consisting of hundreds of paintings and drawings, is now housed at Tate Britain and the National Gallery, London.

Related Resources

Slideshow: More works by Joseph Mallord William Turner