This dramatic and impressive work shows Woolmer at his most ambitious. A painter of domestic and historical genre pictures, Woolmer's wide oeuvre is united by his distinctive style, which critics have rightly identified as Watteauesque. Soft brushwork fuses many colours within one canvas, and the result is paradoxically both detailed and impressionistic; light effects, for example, are often key to his pictures and imbue them with an emotional charge.
They are also possessed of sensuality, but the mood can change from langorous and heady to dreamy and evanescent. The forgotten pool (sold Sotheby's, London, 1986) is an example of the former: a Babylonian nymph prepares to bathe; an avenue of dark trees stretches back against the moonlit sky. Woolmer's more lighthearted mood is epitomised by Fête Champétre (sold Christie's, London, 11 June 2002, lot 172, £11,950). An Arcadian group, attired in eighteenth-century costume, gather under broad-limbed trees to celebrate summer. Woolmer's contemporary genre pieces, frequently smaller in conception, are whimsical rather than challenging.
Sunset is a more mysterious proposition. Its mood is ambiguous; like the sunset itself, it is poised between dark and light. The model is unclothed apart from light drapery. She immediately evokes classical nudes, and so shows Woolmer's debt to William Etty, who painted a similarly warm-hued, voluptuous, type. If we are right to identify this as the Royal Academy exhibit of 1842, we can see how it also pre-figures the Olympian school that flourished from 1860. Edward John Poynter and Frederic Leighton often placed their subject on a promontory or bay, looking out to sea (see Leighton's 'Psamanthe', 1880, Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamers, p. 67).
Classicism itself brings to mind eternal themes: stories of deserted heroines, such as Dido and Phyllis - archetypes which have become subsumed into our culture. Is Woolmer's model lost in thought, or does she keep a desperate vigil, awaiting another's return from sea? She may herself embody threat. (Her pose resembles, in reverse, the left-hand figure in Woolmer's The Sirens, 1877-8, sold at Christie's London, 4 November 1994, lot 96, £4,830).
Woolmer gives us no clues. The cliffs beyond are free of buildings; every corner of the canvas is peopled with natural textures, sea and rockface reflecting - in a myriad tones - the fiery sky.
Woolmer exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and Suffolk Street, and his work now hangs in the collections of the Glasgow, Liverpool and York city art galleries.