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.


  • Title: Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight
  • Date Created: 1835
  • Physical Dimensions: w1228 x h923 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Widener Collection
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • painter: Joseph Mallord William Turner
  • Theme: topographical, United Kingdom
  • School: British
  • 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. [1] This work was painted as a companion to NGA 1942.9.85 (Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore), exhibited the previous year at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and also owned by McConnel. He was obliged to sell the pictures at a time of business adversity, but regretted selling his Turners to John Naylor, and in 1861 tried, unsuccessfully, to buy at least one of them back. Letter from McConnel to John Naylor, 28 May 1861 (quoted in Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 2 vols., rev. ed., New Haven: 1984: I:205).

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