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.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/british-paintings-16th-19th-centuries.pdf
lower left on buoy: JMWT
Painted for Henry McConnel [1801-1871], The Polygon, Ardwick, Manchester; sold 1849 to John Naylor, Leighton Hall, Liverpool; 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.
- Modern Artists, Royal Manchester Institution, 1835, no. 260.
- Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1835, no. 24.
- Pictures, Exhibited at a Soirée, Given by John Buck Lloyd, Esquire, Mayor of Liverpool, Town Hall, Liverpool, 23 September 1854, no. 21.
- Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1887, no. 14.
- Paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. and J.M.W. Turner, R.A., M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, 1914, no. 36.
- Turner 1775-1851, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1974-1975, no. 513, color repro.
- J.M.W. Turner, Grand Palais, Paris, 1983-1984, no. 61, color repro.
- Turner, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 1986, no. 33, color repro.
- Turner, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1996, no. 18, repro.
- 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.
- Turner and Venice, Tate Britain, London; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2003-2004, no. 38, repro.
- 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).
- 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.
- Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude, The National Gallery, London, 2012, no. 55, repro.
- Turner & the Sea, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2013-2014, no. 86, repro. (shown only in Greenwich).
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.
- Fraser's Magazine 12 (12 July 1835): 55.
- London Literary Gazette, no. 955, 9 May 1835: 298.
- Morning Chronicle, 6 May 1835.
- Spectator, 8, no. 358, 9 May 1835: 447.
- The Times (London), 23 May 1835.
- 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.
- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro.
- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 20, repro.
- Works of Art from the Widener Collection. Foreword by David Finley and John Walker. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 7.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 148, color repro.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1948 (reprinted 1959): 97, repro.
- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 148
- 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.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 322, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 133.
- 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.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 120, repro.
- Finley, David Edward. A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington. Washington, 1973: 93, 99 repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 354, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: no. 600, color repro.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 99, pl. 87.
- Wilton, Andrew. The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner. London, 1979: 220, color pl. 217 (detail).
- Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner. Edited by John Gage. Oxford, 1980: 159, no. 198.
- 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.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 413, no. 585, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 405, repro.
- Treuherz, Julian. "The Turner Collector: Henry McConnel, Cotton Spinner." Turner Studies 6 (1986): 38-39, 40-41, 42, fig. 3.
- Wilton, Andrew. Turner in His Time. London, 1987: 186, repro. 253.
- 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.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 157, repro.
- Rodner, William S. J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
- The Victorians: British Painting in the Reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997: no. 1.
- 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.
- Schwander, Martin, ed. Venice: From Canaletto and Turner to Monet. Ostfildern, 2008: 61, 67 n. 14.
- Tabili, Laura. Global Migrants, Local Culture: Natives and Newcomers in Provincial England, 1841-1939. London, 2011: cover, color repro.