Joseph Turner is one of the most prolific and well-known English painters of the nineteenth century. He is often called the world’s greatest “painter of light” (Shanes, 2004). This paper is devoted to the formal analysis and interpretation of his piece called Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight that is now exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, USA.
This landscape depicts the River Tyne in England and several large ships that were used to carry coal (Turner, 1835). At the forefront, there are some smaller boats and a raft. As the title of the canvas suggests, Turner painted the night, but the moon is shining so brightly that it is possible to suggest that it is a day, not a night. The line of the horizon divides the painting into two parts where the sea is about two times smaller than the sky. The sky is very important for Turner as he uses it to convey extraordinary interactions of light and shadow he was famous for. The colors of the sky are so well combined that it looks like a pearl. A certain contrast to the tenderness of the sky is created by the dark silhouettes of the ships located at the right side of the painting. As the workers are engaged in the transportation of coal, they use bright torches that throw red and orange reflections on the dark outlines of the ships. It adds the right side of the canvas slightly uneasy atmosphere that contrasts the soft and elegant textures of the night sky and water. It is not possible to say that Turner’s brushstrokes are visible and large, but some parts of the painting, as, for example, the upper part of the sky, have rather rough texture. The shapes of the ships are slightly blurred as the moonlight does not allow the viewers to see the objects clearly. This piece of art is united, balanced, and harmonious. All the elements are perfectly connected, and none of them seems to stand out too much. Large dark ships are located both at the right and left sides of the painting that creates something similar to a frame and urges the viewer to focus their gaze first at the glowing moon. This moon is the logical center of the painting created with the help of heavy impasto. Turner depicted this scene in great details, and if looking attentively at the small ships close to the horizon, one may notice many tiny masts of other ships located in the distance.
This painting is an example of a fascinating and elegant landscape that glorifies the beauty of the nature and, at the same time, warns the audience of its great power. However, Costello argues that Turner’s works, despite their actual landscape nature, can also be classified as historical paintings. He writes, “These pictures… are significantly concerned with the issues of history and that these issues informed Turner’s pictorial choices” (Costello, 2012). Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight is a typical romanticism work of art that depicts the nature of the industrial revolution that significantly changed the life in Great Britain and other European countries. Turner manages to make the viewer both admire wonderful night sky and deeply think about the hard labor of coal workers.
To conclude, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight is a bright example of a romantic painting that simultaneously deals with the themes or nature and the industrial revolution. The artist managed to convey the slightest tones of light and shade in the sky and water and create impressive contrasts between the nature and the man-made ships and torches.
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