The beauty of this work lies in the union of simplicity and complexity. The subject is really just waves (the ship and sky are almost lost) but their structure is rendered with intricate, realistic detail. Simplicity of subject matter alows the artist to concentrate on the abstract qualities of the painting.
Aivazovsky was born to an Armenian family in the Crimea (the family Russianised their name). He was renowned as a master painter of vast seascapes and tempests, Romantic subjects very much in fashion in his time. Delacroix spoke of him with reverence, and Turner considered him a genuis. Aivazovsky's depiction of mariners struggling for survival in turbulent seas has been read as symbolic of the struggle of the Armenian people, caught between warring powers, to maintain their identity.