Since the period of the Restoration, the French state, through its Fine Arts Department bought works displayed at the Salon each year. Anxious not to raise national hackles, the Director of Fine Arts gave preference to French works. However some astute purchases of foreign paintings were made on the advice of the curator of the Paris Museum of Luxembourg, Léonce Bénédite, in the 1880s and 1890s. Among them was a painting by Hendrik-Willem Mesdag, Sunset, which was exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1887; it displayed the quintessential qualities of this artist to whom a museum is devoted in the Dutch city of The Hague.
The subject of Mesdag's painting is very simple: the sea and the sky, which a low horizon divides into unequal parts on the canvas. A few sails in the distance, on the left, enliven the severe construction.
The colour scheme, on the contrary, proves to be astonishingly complex in the multiplicity of deliberately subdued tones which seek to render the light effects just before the sun sinks below the horizon.