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Considered to be a master of light and color, not to mention one of the greatest exponents of Romanticism in painting, Joseph Mallord William Turner is featured in the National Gallery with six of his pieces.

“Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” is one of the most important works from the artist who was born in London in 1775.

It depicts the port of the River Tyne in Shields, a town close to Newcastle in the north of England, and dock workers–keelmen–loading coal onto barges–keels–to transport it from one side of the river to the other under the moonlight.

The England of the Industrial Revolution, the new working classes and social changes were some of the painter’s favorite themes, however they were always set amidst landscapes and combined with nature and weather phenomena, as Turner felt these controlled the world.


Although coming from a wealthy family, Turner grew up in a working-class area of London and never lost the accent of the people. In this oil painting, he has succeeded in transposing the toil of port work and its nobility with extreme agility, setting it within a landscape awash with light. Looking at the surface up close, you can see that some areas have been more heavily painted, such as the silvery white moon and the yellow and orange flames of the torches. This was done to enhance the surface so it would capture light over the canvas.


A precursor to the Impressionists and even contemporary abstract art, Joseph Turner became famous at just twenty-one years old, becoming the youngest member of the Royal Academy of Art and you should know that over the course of his entire life he left us with almost 2,000 canvases.


Not having to worry about money, he lived as a recluse with his father who worked as his assistant and had a way of speaking that was considered to be unseemly at the time. He didn't care about fashions and refinement and paid little attention to social norms. He even had two daughters with his housekeeper, yet never married her.


Interesting fact: Following the dictates of Romanticism, which called for a fusion of art and life and expression and experience, Joseph Turner had himself tied to the main mast of a ship for 24 hours in order to feel the emotion of the wind and the sea with greater intensity and transmit it to his canvases. He nearly died of bronchopneumonia for his trouble.

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