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An imaginary scene, framed with the feel of a theatre set, this work by Claude-Joseph Vernet is an assault on the senses. The beauty and terror of the sublime collide, and to step inside this painting is to be confronted with unimaginable horror.

With the waves of the tumultuous sea taking over and conspiring with the sweeping darkness of the clouds, an element of foreboding and danger engulfs the scene.

The largest of the ships sways in motion to the shouts of its passengers. It's urgently trying to reach the shoreline, desperate not to meet the same fate as the defeated, splintered remains of the ship before it.

From the light of the lighthouse which has spectacularly let everyone down, to the frantic scrambling and salvaging of belongings, there is a cacophony of discord.

As the people in the foreground of the painting flee, and the panicked sounds emanate from the group who surround the motionless figure lying on the central rock, the aftermath of the situation takes hold. You can only imagine the terror they feel, the grimness of what they have just witnessed. When will it end?

But, at last, a small, small glimmer of hope is on its way. As the last of the lightning strikes, a golden and orange hue resonates in the sky, deep into the distance. The light of the blue sky finally starts to break through the darkness and filter through the clouds. 

Calm will ultimately be restored, but... for how long?

Digital activity at the National Gallery is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies Digital Accelerator

Fiona Alderton
Gallery Educator
Fiona Alderton is a Gallery Educator and storyteller. With a background in performing, she writes and gives sessions for adults and children, including commissions for various organisations such as the National Portrait Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the Royal Opera House in London.
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature
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10 September 2022 – 8 January 2023
See how the great American Realist painter Winslow Homer captured the dangers of life at sea
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