Joseph Mallord William Turner - Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight [1835]

On England’s River Tyne, near the mining city of Newcastle, stevedores called keelmen transfer coal from barges, or keels, to oceangoing vessels. The harsh glare of the workmen’s torches contrasts with the funnel of creamy light emanating from the moon. Critical opinion about Turner’s unusual nocturne was divided. One reviewer observed: “It represents neither night nor day, and yet the general effect is very agreeable and surprising.”

Commissioned as a pendant to Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore and shown at the Royal Academy in 1835, this canvas creates a total counterpoint in mood and meaning. The Venetian scene is far away in the Mediterranean Sea, concerns luxury goods, and glows with warm daylight. This North Sea view, a familiar sight to the British public, reveals sooty, modern industry chilled by the colours of a winter’s night.

[Oil on canvas, 92.3 x 122.8 cm]