The Yankee Gale comes out of the tradition of marine painting. When not painting marine disasters, though, Thresher commonly worked on a special type of marine art: the ship's portrait. Ship's portraits were important as records in the 1800s during the age of tall ships and ocean commerce. The portraits recorded and preserved images of sailing vessels at a time when a well-built boat was very important, but even a well-built boat could easily be lost to the sea. In a ship's portrait, the vessel itself is the dominant image and is painted in detail. Accuracy was important in representing the rigging, the set of the sails, the flags, and other distinguishing details. Some captured more background, such as the shore line. Most ship's portraits were of trading vessels and were commissioned by the ship's proud owners.
It is worth considering how a ship's portrait might compare to a painting of a disaster like that depicted in The Yankee Gale. Thresher's goal in painting the Gale was to tell a story, to portray an event, and to record a dramatic event. He does not try to depict the details of any specific ship, but rather to show a number of ships sinking and to communicate a mood of horror. More important are the movement of the sea and the impending sense of doom. Today, the age of ships and shipbuilding has ended, and images such as this one are its legacy, symbols of a moment in history.