During the American Civil War, the United States warship Kearsarge made headlines after sinking the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of France.
The Alabama was the most feared of a group of Confederate cruisers, purchased and outfitted mainly in England, that were attacking Union merchant vessels in retaliation for the blockade imposed on ports below North Carolina. Off Cherbourg, the Kearsarge lay in wait for it, and on Sunday, June 19, the two ships met and clashed. The Kearsarge sank the raider in about an hour and a half.
Manet did not see the battle but was inspired to make an imaginary painting of it, which he finished so quickly that it was placed on exhibition 26 days after the event. Several weeks later, after visiting the victorious Kearsarge as it basked at anchor off Boulogne, he produced a firsthand impression of the ship.
Manet's motivation for painting the Kearsarge is unclear, but scholars point out that several entirely unrelated works he had entered in Paris salons had been severely criticized. Perhaps, frustrated by the attacks, he wanted to redeem his reputation by fixing on a sensational subject of contemporary life that had attracted wide public attention.