In Shipwreck off the Coast, Von Guerard explores one of the great themes of marine painting, the probable sinking or stranding of a ship. However, rather than portraying the aftermath of the wreck and the two survivors, as in Evening after a Gale, Wilson's Promontary, 1870, Von Guerard focuses on the race, the drama, of the two small crafts in a desperate dash out to an event the viewer can only imagine.
The painting centres on the emotion and tension represented in the straining figures, heaving their oars, in high seas against a backdrop of steep rocky cliffs. The storm has only just moved on down the coastline, the seas remain rough and dark clouds linger, although the blue sky breaking through the clouds suggests an imminent change.
Shipwreck off the Coast is not only about the unfolding narrative. Von Guerard's depiction of the weather, in particular, the shaft of blue sky, imbues the painting with two themes integral to his wilderness paintings: the celebration of nature and the omnipotence of God.
Candice Bruce writes of Von Guerard's belief in "the nineteenth century Romantic connection of nature which held that by the silent contemplation of the landscape, man could embrace the universe and so, find God. Nature became the very manifestation of God and thus the glorification of nature was also a glorification of the Almighty" (C. Bruce, E Comstock & F McDonald, Eugene von Guerard 1811-1901, A German Romantic in the Antipodes, New Zealand, 1982, p.28)
It is rare for Von Guerard to depict drama and excitement as portrayed in Shipwreck off the Coast. Generally, if figures were included in the paintings as in View from Mount Lofty, South Australia, c. 1860, there was no apparent misfortune. Rather the placement of figures in a landscape alluded to the exploration and inevitable settlement of a formerly pristine land.