The carp, centre-right of the table and positioned in front of a metal cooking pot, is the largest fish on display and the focal point of the painting. A red gurnard, facing away from the carp, is situated to the left of the larger fish while a pile of oysters are positioned further left of the gurnard. An eel, it's head pointing leftwards and resting against an oyster shell, is situated in front of the carp and near the table edge. A lemon, an oyster knife and a sprig of herbs are visible on the right-hand side of the table.
Manet, a student of Gustave Courbet, had rebelled against the strictures of his academic training and abandoned Realism for Impressionism which was subverting the French art establishment in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The artist's association with the avant-garde movement, however, did not diminish his respect for the Western artistic tradition and he was influenced by the still life paintings of the Dutch and French schools which often featured fish as their primary subject. Creating a still life of deceased fish, a genre sometimes referred to as dead nature, allowed Manet to make his own contribution to this time-honoured tradition.
The carp, its tail raised, is laying on its side and catches the light on the white scales of its underbelly while casting a shadow on the copper hues of the cooking pot behind it. The lemon, its left side illuminated and its right side darkened by shadow, demonstrates that the light is travelling from left to right. Pierre Nichon, who produced a similar still life two centuries before which featured both fish and a copper pot, may have inspired Manet to create this particular artwork. Pieter van Noort and Willem Ormea, producers of still life paintings of fish during the Dutch Golden Age, are another possible influence on the French painter.
The oysters, three of which are open and displaying their flesh while the rest are closed, are another common theme of seventeenth century still life from the Netherlands and appeared in the works of Pieter Claesz. Manet, who painted his oysters as an amorphous heap of greys and browns where the individual oysters seem to melt into one another, may have been inspired to paint the shellfish during his studies of still life from the Dutch Golden Age.