Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) was a key painter of the early Impressionist period, a friend and associate of Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir who matched their pathbreaking experiments with light, color, and brushstroke. He put his own stamp on early Impressionist technique and produced a body of work that art historian Richard Shone called "fundamentally representative of our notion of what constitutes 'pure' Impressionism." His output consisted almost entirely of landscapes.
That consistency of subject matter is partly responsible for the comparative obscurity of Sisley's paintings as compared to the work of other great early Impressionists. While Monet, for example, began to incorporate urban scenes into his art, and Renoir began to specialize in a new kind of portrait, Sisley's style changed little as he moved from town to town and painted the new landscapes he encountered. It was only when Sisley's paintings were reassembled into large museum exhibitions that the dimensions of his achievement became apparent; his subtle grasp of detail and effect was almost the equal of Monet's, and his impact on future landscape painters, many of them American, was strong.
Born to English Parents
Alfred Sisley was born in Paris, France, on October 30, 1839, to William and Felicia Sisley, cousins from England. William Sisley was the manager of a company that made artificial flowers. Despite his English name and occasional references to him as "the English Impressionist," Alfred Sisley rarely left France, and for many years had only an imperfect grasp of English. He applied twice for French citizenship but was turned down both times. Both English (SIS-lee) and French (sees-LEI) pronunciations of his name were current during his lifetime. Sisley was brought up in Paris, and in 1857 he was sent to London, England, to live with relatives, improve his English, and prepare for the business career his parents had planned for him.
Instead, Sisley spent his time studying the great English landscape painters of the time, including John Constable and the proto-Impressionist J.M.W. Turner, whose late paintings almost did away with representation in favor of pure patterns of light. Back in Paris in 1860, Sisley began studying art at the studio of Charles Gleyre, a conservative painter whose classes nevertheless attracted several of the future creators of Impressionism. Sisley became acquainted with Monet, Renoir, and Frédéric Bazille. Sisley and other painters sometimes went out in groups to sketch scenes en plein aire, or in open air, a characteristic Impressionist technique Sisley would follow for the rest of his life. Sisley's first surviving paintings are rather gloomy landscapes in the style of the dominant Barbizon school, but he soon began to pay attention to Monet's innovations. Sisley made waves with two paintings of a street in the village of Marlotte that were shown in 1866 at the Salon, a space that exhibited paintings juried by the French Academy of Fine Arts.
Sisley's personal life went through an upheaval at around that time. He met Marie Louise Adélaïde Eugénie Lescouezec, an artist's model and florist who was five years older than he. She became pregnant and gave birth to their son, Pierre, in 1867. Sisley, who was not religious, had no use for a church ceremony, and the two did not marry until 1897, shortly before Sisley's death. A daughter, Jeanne, followed in 1870, and Sisley's father, whose business was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War, was outraged by Sisley's non-marital liaison and cut him off from family funds. Sisley, however, usually told people that he was married, and few outside the family knew of the unorthodox arrangement; a bit of scandal, then as now, might actually have helped his career. Sisley remained on the edge financially for much of his life and often borrowed money from friends. Things got even worse in 1870 when Prussian troops pillaged the town of Bougival, west of Paris, where he was living at the time; he lost everything he owned.
By that time, however, Sisley had fully immersed himself in the new techniques that would soon become known as Impressionism. Moving his family to the small town of Louveciennes, he began to paint landscapes of the area; these early Impressionist paintings, such as Early Snow at Louveciennes (in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) are considered some of his best. His paintings, at first so dark, now seemed bathed in light. Richard Cork wrote in the Times of London, "By 1872, two years before the First Impressionist Exhibition, he had liberated his imagination with extraordinary panache. Look at the superb Bridge of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, where the sky is at last permitted to assume the importance it would enjoy in so much of his work." Sisley attracted the attention of the influential art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who had an international clientele.
Exhibited at Impressionist Shows
The event that gave Impressionism its name was the Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, which featured a number of Sisley's works from the preceding few years—careful, subtle landscape scenes that wound up in collections on both sides of the English Channel, and eventually on both sides of the Atlantic. Sisley's painting Autumn: Banks of the Seine near Bougival shared the distinction of being criticized, along with Monet's works, as unfinished. Sisley also exhibited his paintings at the second, third, and seventh Impressionist exhibitions, and the prices his paintings could command rose to a point where he could support his family.
Emboldened by his new success, Sisley made a painter's tour of England in 1874, traveling with French opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure. Sisley returned twice more to England but otherwise did not travel to seek out artistically stimulating locales the way other artists of the day tended to do; the trip to take in the atmosphere of decaying Venice was a common one at the time, but Sisley never made it. The 1874 visit produced an important series of scenes painted along the Thames River, but Sisley avoided the heavily industrial scenes that were beginning to fascinate other contemporary French painters.
Sisley moved his family to Moret-sur-Loing, southeast of Paris, in 1880. The town nears the Fontainebleau forest beloved by various Impressionist painters, and it became for Sisley something comparable to what Giverny, west of Paris, was for Monet: a source of unusual natural scenes that he knew well and could revisit with a canvas, or occasionally a camera, for despite his devotion to painting in the open air, Sisley seems to have worked from photographs at times. Still short of cash, Sisley sometimes paid off local tradespeople and merchants with paintings. One painting at the time could pay for roughly three months' rent on the Sisley family's house at 19 rue Montmartre. The descendants of some of these townspeople reaped a windfall from their inherited Sisley paintings, but others were reluctant to admit ownership of a Sisley lest they be forced to pay several generations' worth of inheritance taxes. Sisley is thought to have painted up to 1,500 canvases, but only 900 have been identified so far.
Staying close to Moret for the rest of his life, Sisley still sought out new surroundings by moving temporarily to other small towns. His fortunes slowly improved as his reputation solidified. Durand-Ruel mounted an all-Sisley exhibition in Paris in 1883 and another at his satellite gallery in New York in 1889—the point of origin for some of the many Sisley scenes that hang today on the walls of large and medium-sized American museums. The French government confirmed Sisley's status by purchasing one of his paintings in 1888, and in 1890 he was chosen as a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (National Society of Fine Arts), a group formed by the sculptor Auguste Rodin and several painters to highlight the best in French modern art. Sisley's paintings were often shown at the group's annual exhibitions in the 1890s.
Painted Cathedral Series
In 1893 and 1894, Sisley produced a series of paintings of a Gothic-era church in Moret-sur-Loing, with close-up views of the church, various lighting conditions, and types of weather. The series is comparable to the more famous series of views of Rouen Cathedral painted by Monet around the same time, and Sisley may have done his own series because he heard about Monet's plans and wanted to use the publicity surrounding Monet to his own advantage. The Monet cathedral series was one of the great breakthroughs of modern art, with unearthly colors and indistinct building shapes that seem to point the way toward abstraction. Sisley's works, by comparison, remained more in the main line of classic Impressionism.
Critics have disagreed on the merits of Sisley's church paintings. Cork declared that "even when glistening from a recent downpour or assailed by the full power of the sun, [Sisley's] church never threatens to dissolve in light. Monet's encrusted visions are ethereal; Sisley's remain earthbound." But Joseph C. Skrapits, writing in American Artist, found that "Sisley's churches evoke a depth of poetic feeling missing from Monet's cathedrals, which for all their fireworks display of color seem somewhat chilly exercises in virtuoso technique." Whichever reaction the individual viewer may have, it seemed clear that large exhibitions of Sisley's paintings resulted in a new appreciation of his technique. Seen individually, his paintings do not push the envelope as those of the more progressive Impressionists did, but an immersion in his painterly world reveals the depth of his reactions to natural scenes. Like Monet, Sisley also often painted haystacks in the latter part of his career.
Sisley suffered from cancer of the throat for several years in the late 1890s, and he died at age 59 on January 29, 1899, in Moret-sur-Loing. The Georges Petit gallery in Paris mounted a retrospective of his work in 1897, but for many years after that, despite the wide distribution of his work in museums, he was somewhat undervalued in comparison with the major Impressionists. No full-length biography of Sisley exists, partly because, although he was a prolific letter writer, he was reticent about the personal details of his life. Sisley's paintings are often described as sober, in contrast to the crowd-pleasing ebullience of a painter like Renoir with his intensely colorful palette. A major showing of Sisley's work at the Royal Academy in London and a series of events mounted in Moret in 1999, on the 100th anniversary of Sisley's death, resulted in new interest in his classic Impressionist style. Of the Royal Academy show, the Economist noted that Sisley "did not do what art historians like painters to do. He did not constantly push, and twist, and extend his range." But "anyone who does not feel a sudden flush of pleasure when confronted with a classic Sisley needs to take his soul in for a service."
International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James, 1990.
Shone, Richard, Sisley, Phaidon, two editions, 1992, 1994.
Turner, Jane, ed., Dictionary of Art, Macmillan, 1996.
American Artist, March 1995.
Economist, July 18, 1992.
Guardian (London, England), June 7, 1999.
Times (London, England), July 3, 1992.
"Alfred Sisley," The Artchive, http://www.artchive.com/artchive/S/sisley.html (February 13, 2006).