The artist would travel across his lifetime, but particularly so in his twenties, when Europe would feature several times. He was originally from Germany himself, but settled in the US. As such, it is hard to pinpoint the location of this ship and the surrounding seascape. Named simply Beached Ship, it is a stunning example of his ability to master lighting and nature within his paintings. Normally he would focus purely on nature, with maybe just a few figures added for perspective but in the earlier part of his career the content was a little more varied. There were scenes in Switzerland and Italy, for example, and he also gave a greater importance to humanity in some examples. Marine art was thriving during this period and so it was not a surprise that some of its themes would eventually make their way into the career of this painter. His landscape skills could always be used alongside such details and provide charming overall compositions.
The composition itself features a large ship leaning to the left, as it balances on its side, with its back to us. Bierstadt includes aggressive waves in the foreground which perhaps suggests that he is on the shore whilst creating this work, looking out into the distance. There is, for example, a small boat nearest us which has perhaps been launched to help save some of the sailors as they head for land. In the far distance on the horizon we find several more ships making their way in seemingly more appropriate, comfortable conditions. The horizon is perfectly straight which gives the illusion of tranquility in the distance and chaos in the foreground. The lighting is also abrupt, with darkness adding to the feeling of peril for this ship nearest us. The bottom half of the sky is bright and yellow, whilst above are orange/red clouds which hangs mencingly. We can also make out some some rocks to the left hand side which helps to place ourselves on the beach as we look out.
William Turner would become one of the masters of seascapes and he would have been well known to Bierstadt. He gave us the likes of Fighting Temeraire and Snow Storm and helped to promote this genre, just as he did with more standard landscapes. Other Romanticists across Europe would make a similar contribution and eventually this would lead to the Impressionists, which today is more famous. The likes of Bierstadt took some of their ideas and combined that with their own innovations as well as the different challenges and opportunities posed by the American West. It was there that most of his work was completed, but he did travel elsewhere for inspiration in his early years when passion and ambition were inevitably at their strongest.