At a time when most painters were slavishly executing portraits, history pictures and fêtes galantes, Claude-Joseph Vernet seamlessly rose to eminence as a painter of marine landscapes. He exhibited his landscapes from 1746 to 1789 at the Paris Salon, where he was praised by Denis Diderot for elevating the genre closer to the level of history painting. In addition to depicting various times of day, Vernet conveyed poignant sentiments through details in nature, possibly under the influence of Edmund Burke's anonymously published text, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Among Vernet's patrons in Italy were the French ambassador to Rome and the wife of Spanish King Philip V. However, his most celebrated commission came from the French court, the propagandistic series depicting the ports of France (1752-62). Vernet's seascapes would go on to inspire the more sensational compositions of Pierre-Jacques Volaire and Joseph Wright of Derby.
The present work was painted in Paris following Vernet's partial completion of the 'Ports of France' series. In full command of his proto-Romantic idiom, the artist fused motifs previously observed on the Mediterranean coast line with his fantastic vision of the elements. Swelling waves stirred by a violent storm send a wayward ship crashing up against an unidentified rocky coast. The surviving passengers wash up in the right foreground, reinforcing the dynamic composition through expressive attitudes and gestures. Although the composition was safely conceived in Vernet's Paris studio, the impact on the viewer is one of real terror and destruction, most vividly embodied in the female victim being carried onto dry land by two male passengers.