Contemporary fantasy painters seem to be of the same “school” in a certain regard, yet, perhaps they play up the realism of the fantasy too much. While Aivazovsky indeed captures the realism, his is stylized and romantic. I suspect what makes fear in this image real as well as something romantic is the unity of contrasts.
We have a unity of light and dark, fire and water, chaos and calm. In terms of light and dark, the obvious is the darkness of the water as well as the night sky in contrast with the flaming ships. We also have aspects of the ships that fade into darkness. The darkest part of the painting being off to the left. If you examine that specific darkness for too long, the burning ships almost seem a welcome sight in comparison; in comparison to the bleak terror of a dark ocean at night.
It goes without saying that the subject of this painting IS the chaos, but if you notice the relative stillness of the water, we also have a sense of calm. While the waves look a little choppy closer to the bottom of the painting, the bulk of the ships seem to sit rather still. The fire and water (ocean) is another obvious contrast which implies death by two forms of elemental opposites.
In short, it’s one thing to paint realistically, and there are many naval battles depicted where you see ships firing cannons off at one another, but in Aivazovsky’s Battle of Sinop 1853, you see a a unity of opposites revealed in a naval battle.