Édouard Manet, attracted by the sea since his childhood, vacationed in Boulogne-sur-Mer with his family in 1868. It was during this vacation that he painted this work.
The painting is composed of four, successive planes. In the foreground, there is a group of women dressed in black, contrasting with the bright gray of the quayside. In the second plane, the sea, full of white reflections, is illuminated by the full moon. In the third plane, the busy shipping port is plunged into gloom, merging into the hills which can be roughly made out in the light of fires and a lighthouse. Finally, in the upper half of the painting, the starry sky creates an opening for the eye.
Manet may have been inspired by Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 17th century, borrowing from them the dark light, and the mysterious, almost dramatic atmosphere. He stood out from the ancient masters by leaving out Biblical and mythological subjects and opting instead to depict a realist subject of daily life in a port, that of the sailors' wives waiting for the fishermen to return with their hauls.