Stanfield was regarded as the greatest British marine artist of his day. The public preferred the immediacy and high finish of his sea paintings, to the misty visions of J. M. W. Turner's later years, and John Ruskin praised him at length in Modern Painters (1843–60), drawing particular attention to his truthfully observed skies and his astonishing ability to render the movement and transparency of water. His most impressive work is the vast Battle of Trafalgar (1836; London, United Services Club). It combines his expertise at drawing ships with the scene painter's talent for working on a large scale.
In addition to his oil paintings, Stanfield produced many watercolours. He also furnished illustrations for several books. In 1847 he and his family moved into the Green-Hill, a large house in Hampstead. It became a meeting-place for writers and artists including William Makepeace Thackeray, Edwin Henry Landseer, C. R. Leslie and Charles Dickens.