A crowd of well-dressed men and women, their features only hinted at by the French painter's brush, stand on the platform of the Boulogne-sur-Mer docks as they wait to board a ferry that is bound for Folkestone. The artist, staying at a waterside hotel where he observed the steamboat's departure from his window, prepared some preliminary works in his room before returning to his Paris studio to work on the painting.
The steamboat, a sidewheeler with two smokestacks and at least one mast, connected the transport networks of South East England with those in Northern France and followed a sea lane that had been in use since Roman times. The Boulogne-Calais Railway, opened in 1867, was scarcely two years old at the time of the painting's creation and the cross-channel ferry provided a direct link with the South Eastern Railway in England. Railway connections between Folkestone and London as well as Boulogne and Paris, the former via Ashford and the latter via Lille, allowed English and French travellers to visit the capitals of both countries.
Technological progress, a defining feature of the Industrial Revolution which Manet experienced firsthand, is represented in the form of the steamboat while the class system is displayed in the bourgeois attire of the waiting passengers. Ships of the era tended to be powered by both sails and steam, due to the tendency of coal-fired engines to break down, and this transitional state of technology is documented within the painting. Paddle wheel technology, however, had been rendered obsolete by the adoption of screw propeller in the 1840s. The hull, painted dark shades of brown, lacks any specific details that could indicate whether it was constructed of wood or iron.
White cliffs, similar to those found in the South East coast of England, are visible in the distance which serves as a reminder of the geological similarities between Kent and the Hauts-de-France. These regions, with their landmasses formed of chalk and other calciferous rock, were joined by a land bridge before a series of floods between 425,000 and 225,000 years ago separated Britain from mainland Europe. The sky is bright blue with smudges of blue-white cloud while the calm sea, in which boats can be seen at the left-hand side of the canvas, is a lighter blue than the sky with areas of green surrounding the distant vessels.