USS Kearsarge, a sloop-of-war serving on the Union side of the American Civil War, had arrived in Europe to tackle the threat posed to Federal shipping by Confederate raiders. Manet, receiving news of the warship's victory over CSS Alabama near Cherbourg, visited the sloop-of-war while it was anchored at Boulogne and created a watercolour of the ship. The oil-on-canvas painting, executed in his Paris studio, was based on the original watercolour.
The gentle waves, painted in different shades of blue and the occasional streak of green, indicate that the sea is calm while the sliver of blue sky that is visible through an opening in the clouds suggests that this is a warm yet overcast Summer's day. Kearsarge, situated on the the left of the canvas and painted in dark shades of grey, is surrounded by smaller sailing vessels and the artist's perspective within the painting suggests that Manet had chartered a boat for the purpose of creating some preliminary works. A boat with round bilges, unfurled sails and a crew facing away from the Kearsarge appears at the right of the canvas and seems to be sailing away from the sloop-of-war.
The triple-masted ship's rudder and screw propeller are just visible above the waterline, its sails are absent while at anchor and its smokestack towers above a lifeboat. The lengths of iron chain, used as improvised armour during the naval engagement which Manet painted in The Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama, have been removed from the sides of the ship which shows no sign of damage from the Confederate raider's shot and shells. The US Union Jack and Flag of the United States, the former positioned at the bow and the latter situated at the stern, are pale in the sunlight and their details are only hinted at.
The triumph of the Kearsarge over the Alabama, the most successful commerce raider of all time, was widely reported in the press and the presence of the famous American ship in a European port attracted sightseers from far and wide. Manet, still experiencing the aftermath of his 1863 painting The Luncheon on the Grass which scandalised French society, may have chosen to paint scenes from this event to detract attention from his recent clashes with the art establishment.