Three inshore vessels, two on the horizon and one in the middle-distance, appear to be sailing from the right-hand side to the left-hand side of the painting on a choppy sea. The foremost sailboat, equipped with a single mast, possesses a black hull which may represent either tar or anti-fouling paint.
Traces of red along the stem-post and on the deck look like paint from the distance but, upon closer inspection, appears to be rope that has been dyed red by tanning materials. The sails, by contrast, are white and this suggests that they have not been tanned. Van Gogh, who is thought to have executed this painting at the beach, signs his name at the bottom-left hand side of the canvas.
The sail configuration of the boat in the foreground, due to the impressionistic strokes of the Dutch artist’s palette knife, is debatable. A gaff-rigged mainsail, or a quadrilateral sailcloth that is attached to the mast along the line of the keel, is visible but it is uncertain whether the watercraft is equipped with an additional lateen-rigged sail or a separate headsail and topsail.
A single-masted, gaff-rigged sailing craft with a headsail is classified as a sloop and some skippers would equip these vessels with a topsail to harness additional power from the wind. Sloop-rigged boats, fishing along the southern coast of France, first emerged in the seventeenth-century while lateen-rigged vessels had been used in the Mediterranean since Classical Antiquity. Les Saintes-Maries-epde-la-Mer, a commune with a rich maritime heritage, was home to a sizeable fishing fleet during van Gogh’s lifetime.
A single oarsman, positioned at the aft of the sailboat, steers the craft and there is no visible sign of a stern-mounted rudder. Stern-mounted rudders, used to steer vessels in European waters since the thirteenth-century, were not always installed on smaller craft and some traditional vessels retained the use of steering-oars into modern times.
The helmsman, dipping his oar into the turbulent Mediterranean waters, is wearing black attire and his face has a crimson appearance. The water, below a blue sky with white clouds, is comprised of many hues that range from light blue to dark green while distant streaks of yellow may represent spits of land. The Mediterranean, van Gogh is reported to have said, was like a mackerel in its tendency to change colour and the Dutch artist conveys this in the painting.