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    Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight

    Joseph Mallord William Turner

    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.

    Claude Lorrain, Harbor Scene with Rising Sun (Le soleil levant), 16341634

    Claude Lorrain, Harbor Scene with Rising Sun (Le soleil levant), 1634, etching, Gift of R. Horace Gallatin, 1949.1.22

    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.

    About the Artist

    Joseph Mallord William Turner

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

    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.



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