The painter Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899) was born to English parents in Paris, where his father held a position in the textile industry and his mother, Felicia Sell, was known as a connoisseur of music. Although he lived and worked for most of his life in France, Sisley retained his British citizenship. He was bilingual and raised a family with his French companion Eugénie Lescouezec. Having lived together for thirty years, the couple officially married in 1897.
His family had originally intended for Sisley to enter the world of commerce, but – not unusually for the age – his interest in art quickly took over. In 1860, he started to study painting under the Swiss academy graduate Charles Gleyre, who was working in Paris at that time, and he soon came to know Bazille, Renoir and Monet. It was in the immediate vicinity of Paris – the Forest of Fontainbleau, Saint-Cloud – that he took his first steps as a landscape artist. This laid down the direction he was to follow for the rest of his life, irrespective of whether he found himself in Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Port-Marly, Moret-sur-Loing or occasionally in Hampton Court or Cardiff.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 71 led to severe financial hardship for the still debuting Sisley. He could no longer rely on the support of his father, who had been laid off by his employer. His only option was to pursue the trying life of an artist in an attempt to make ends meet. He seemed to be destined to a future marked by a constant lack of funds, difficulty making sales, pandering to art collectors, hoping for loans, and an aching sense of falling short.
However, this did not prevent Sisley from playing a key role in the early history of Impressionism. He was one of core Impressionists, and participated in four (1874, 1876, 1877, 1882) of their eight exhibitions. He certainly enjoyed support from gallery owners such as Durand-Ruel and Georges Petit, which helped to assure an at least tolerable existence.
In fact, he was the oft-marginalised veteran of the Impressionist movement, and, it can be argued, the most consistent. “What is an Impressionist, actually?” This was the question put by the young Henri Matisse to Camille Pissarro, who gave a nuanced answer. “Cézanne,” claimed Pissarro, “has spent his entire life painting one and the same picture, so he cannot be classed as an Impressionist. Sisley, on the other hand, is a true Impressionist as he is constantly renewing his choice of picture.”
There was a subtext to this reply. To paint one and the same picture is to reflect on the opportunities posed by the creative process. To paint new pictures involves moving faster, activating the senses within the fleeting reality of the surroundings, capturing the ephemeral moment on canvas. Being an Impressionist in this context is all about making the right choices, reducing the distance between the immediacy of sensory impression and the completeness of expression of the actual annotation.
The style of painting that Sisley refined sought a facture intended to serve as a translation of the tactile value of the landscape. This is not to say that his observations of the social milieu and the impact of modernity on the landscape are of secondary importance. Rather, it was a question of communicating a holistic impression of what lay within his field of sight – with or without an underlying social commentary. Following strict Impressionist practice (procedure, form and content) he worked year in, year out, creating – according to some calculations – a total of 884 works. He died on 29 January 1899 in Moret-sur-Loing, struck down by cancer of the throat.
Always new pictures, but the same brush. This work by Sisley, which has come to the fore in the run-up to this autumn’s auction, is dated 1878 and depicts the interior of a park, possibly from Saint-Cloud. He was in all events very familiar with the area. The previous year, in the sharp light of day, he had set up his easel by the bridge over the Seine, and turned his eyes towards Saint-Cloud. This time, he has taken up a position by the side of a road in a park, observing the promenading visitors from a low perspective. A little farther in, we can just make out what might be a stretch of water, close to which – to the far right of the view – a white brushstroke just above a light blue one seems to indicate a statue on a plinth.
“The effects of the light,” explained Sisley in a conversation with the critic Adolph Tavernier, “which take on an almost material expression in nature, must be reproduced through material effect on the canvas.” This park picture does not deviate from his clearly formulated practice. Broken brushstrokes, partial Pointillism, pure colour application and structured blue contours on fields and trees interact to form a coherent visual effect. A tapestry charged with light. The diffuse blue atmosphere is broken by a yellow-toned area of green with barely visible accents of red. More prominent, however, is the red bonnet worn by one of the two women standing by a cart on the road in the foreground. A small- scale but life-affirming red signal. It is certain that this work stems from a rich seam in Sisley’s artistic life, when he was often to be seen in the area of Sèvres, Billancourt and Saint-Cloud. Ignore the fact that his fragile financial situation drove him to pander to sponsors, it in no way lessens the value of the oeuvre he created.
Hans Henrik Brummer, former Director General of the National Museum, Stockholm
The painting Le Parc is to be sold at our upcoming Fine Art & Antiques auction the 4 December.
Viewing will be open 22 November – 1 December.