“I always start a painting with the sky.” - Alfred Sisley
Alfred Sisley (30 October 1839 – 29 January 1899) was an Impressionist landscape painter who was born and spent most of his life in France, but retained British citizenship. He was the most consistent of the Impressionists in his dedication to painting landscape en plein air (i.e., outdoors). He deviated into figure painting only rarely and, unlike Renoir and Pissarro, found that Impressionism fulfilled his artistic needs. Among his important works are a series of paintings of the River Thames, mostly around Hampton Court, executed in 1874, and landscapes depicting places in or near Moret-sur-Loing. The notable paintings of the Seine and its bridges in the former suburbs of Paris are like many of his landscapes, characterised by tranquillity, in pale shades of green, pink, purple, dusty blue and cream. Over the years Sisley’s power of expression and colour intensity increased.
Son of a well off British dealer established in Paris, Alfred Sisley was born in Paris in 1839. His father sent him in to London, where followed a commercial career from 1857 to 1861, but Sisley intended to be a painter rather than a dealer, in spite of his father’s wishes. In 1862, he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts of Paris, and also joined the studio of Charles Gleyre, where he became friendly with Auguste Renoir , Claude Monet and Frédéric Bazille . In 1864, at the same time as his friends, he left the School of Fine Arts at the time when Charles Gleyre ceased teaching there, and devoted himself to painting in open air in the area of Fontainebleau, at Chailly-en-Bière, then in Marlotte from 1865 to 1866, while living thanks to financial support which his father offered to him.
From his very beginnings, Sisley, just as Pissarro, devoted himself primarily to landscape painting and to lively representations of village streets or Parisian rivers. He frequently met Monet and Renoir to work with them. The early works of Alfred Sisley were influenced by the realism of Courbet, Corot and Daubigny. An art critic wrote about him, on the year of his death: “It is Corot who impresses him, the clear and silver plated Corot, at the same time light and solid, always broad, deep, infinite, Corot dreamer, calm and precise...”. Sisley was admitted to the Official Salon in 1866, 1868 and 1870. His paintings showed his keen interest for coloured impressions of trees and buildings, and for the changing effects of light and clouds above the landscape.
In the catalogue of the sale of Sisley’s studio organised to the benefit of his children after his death, the same critic remarks: “... in the small, hard-working and carefree group made up of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille, in Fontainebleau, Sisley represents cheerfulness, spirit, imagination”. In June 1866, he married Eugènie Lescouezec, a girl of a good family, and a model and florist, with whom he will have two children. Auguste Renoir painted them in 1868, the now famous painting entitled: “The Engaged Couple”" (also known as “Alfred Sisley and his wife”).
In 1869, he settled in Louveciennes, at 2 Princess St. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 caused the ruin of his family, and Sisley, for the rest of his life, will no longer be a young man of good social standing, but an artist struggling to make ends meet in order to support his painting. The civil war “La Commune de Paris” in 1871 forced him find refuge in London, where he met the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who had opened a gallery to exhibit French artists. He returned to France, in Louveciennes a little after the civil unrest was quelled. Now ruined, he is obliged to definitively leave Paris and Louveciennes in 1874 to settle at Marly-le-Roi. In 1874 he was one of the 31 exhibitors of the first show of the Impressionists group, and will then exhibit at the following ones, in 1876 and 1877, without, however, gaining sympathy there, nor enthusiasm from critics. He then painted in Argenteuil, Marly and Bougival.
He would not leave Ile-de-France any more, except for three short trips he took, one in England in 1874, another in Normandy in 1894, and the last one in Wales in 1897. In 1883, however Durand-Ruel devoted a special exhibition to his works and buys some of his paintings, but the interest for Sisley paintings remains poor. After 1880, Sisley went to settle in a solitary retirement, at Moret-sur-Loing, chief town of the canton of Seine-et-Marne, near Fontainebleau. There, he found places of a great source of inspiration where he untiringly composed many now famous paintings.
Sidley always took great pleasure in painting in the open air and was inspired to do so in all seasons, painting the landscapes of Moret-sur-Loing. Alfred Sisley spent there the last years of his life. He died in 1899, without having been granted French citizenship, which he had requested since 1895. It was only after his death that he was recognised as one of the great Impressionist painters.
The pictorial language of Alfred Sisley was always strongly in keeping with Impressionism, but he also showed his attachment to his first inspirers, Corot and Daubigny. However what really distinguishes him, is his constant restraint, the sensitivity of his inspiration, his liking of peaceful landscapes. His work shows a great humility in his attempt to reproduce on canvas the enchantment which he felt in front of real landscapes. Because his scope was indeed restricted to landscapes, in which a few characters sometimes act as a focal interest, without any really personal touch, many saw in Sisley’s paintings a lack of artistic personality. However, Sisley’s paintings present a positive atmosphere of beauty, clarity and lightness, and represent a high degree of Impressionist accomplishment .
Shown above is his “Poplars at Moret Sur Loing, An August Afternoon”, 1888. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Private Collection. This is a painting typical of Sisley’s style, conveying the artist’s love of nature and the joy of capturing on canvas the subtle nuances of light and colour.