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“Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight”

“Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight”
“Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight”
“Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight”
  William Turner - Oil On Canvas – 92 x 123 cm - 1835 - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

William Turner is usually regarded as the founder of modern painting, anticipating impressionism and even abstract art with his interest in direct observation, light effects, and capturing aspects of contemporary life. Since his enrollment at the Royal Academy of Art at a young age, he devoted himself to landscape painting, drawing inspiration from 17th-century Dutch and French painters while seeking to elevate the status of this genre. His first important commissions were for architectural and topographical watercolors, a medium in which he worked extensively, although at the time oil paint was most highly regarded. Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1790, and in 1796 sent his first oil signaling his wider ambitions as a painter. In the following years, his works diversified into history, literature, and myth, challenging the styles of the Old Masters. Eventually, he opened his private gallery in London, where he could freely experiment and promote his singular vision. His various tours across Europe resulted in a wealth of material ranging from on-the-spot pencil sketches to colored studies which contributed to the development of his style.

The social changes wrought by the English Industrial Revolution captivated and inspired Turner, but not to a lesser extent than the sublimity of nature. Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight captures and juxtaposes these two themes. Depicted is the River Tyne in its passing through Shields, a town downriver from Newcastle which was in the 19th century a large supplier of coal for London and house to the manufacture of glass and iron. The flaming smokestacks of industry transformed the marine and land vistas of England, and the pollutants they emitted may have contributed to the refracted and shimmering quality of the light Turner captures in this painting. The moon’s iridescent, nocturnal glow and a sense of calm infuse the picture’s atmosphere. Buoys and paddleboats quietly float in the water, by contrast with the laborers servicing the boats anchored in the harbor under fiery braziers and a cloud of soot at the painting’s edges, suggesting an even more extensive landscape of an industry that extends out of view set to meet the demands of a growing economy.

Although Turner pursued to transform the act of painting, he also actively sought the approval of his peers and the public, which he ultimately enjoyed as 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. In 1802 he was named a full Royal Academician 1802, becoming the youngest artist to be so honored.


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