The group of paintings called “The Last Summer’s Work,” left behind in Kensett’s summer studio at Darien, Connecticut, at his death in December 1872, was the subject of great wonder and fascination among the artist’s admirers, friends, and eulogists who gathered in tribute to him later that month at the Century Club. Their wonder was a factor partly of sheer novelty, for none of the works had been seen before, and as a body they were interpreted to be Kensett’s ultimate testament of his vision and sensibility. To the assembled, however, none of those pictures better represented the absolute expression of the artist’s distilling and suggestive eye than this, in which he eliminated any evidence of landfall but, in a way reminiscent of few artists but J. M. W. Turner, introduced a radiant sun suspended above the open ocean. “It is pure light and water, a bridal of the sea and sky,” averred one of the eulogists, and asked, “Is it presumption in a poor novice in art like me, to say that this is a great picture?”
This lovingly wrought study, perhaps set down in direct witness but more likely freshly recollected, was never developed into a finished painting, but became the obvious source of the artist’s “Sunset”. Along with “Sunset on the Sea” and a few other pictures of his late career, Kensett uncharacteristically indulged a warm, highly saturated palette at variance with the pearly gray tonality of his signature style. At the acme of an enviously successful career and in the relative privacy of his island studio in Long Island Sound, Kensett may well have felt a license that he had not previously to broaden, in his typically measured terms, his aesthetic vocabulary—here to include the richly chromatic effects of J. M. W. Turner or even those that marked the pictures of his colleagues Frederic E. Church and Sanford R. Gifford.