The sea is whipped up by a violent storm. Ships and boats struggle in the fierce winds and crashing waves. In the foreground, one boat has struck a rock and the sailors, some of whom have been thrown overboard, fight for their lives. On an outcrop on the right, a castaway kneels and clasps his hands in prayer. To the far left, the sky begins to clear and rays of sunlight break through the dark clouds.
This oil on copper was executed by Brueghel in about 1595-96 when he was about to leave Italy and return to Antwerp. The violence of the representation recalls the tormented Hell scenes that the artist painted at the beginning of his career, but now treated in a less imaginary and more realistic vein. In fact, this development indicates how important his father’s influence was on him, because the subject of this painting is close to 'The Storm at Sea', made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1569 and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
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