In the first article of this series, I showed what I mean by series paintings, defined some sub-types, and considered how and when they came about. The second article then examined Pissarro’s series paintings.
This article considers Alfred Sisley’s series paintings: how they developed, which major series he produced, and what he intended by painting them. You may find my previous introduction to Sisley’s work a help.
The road to series paintings
As with Pissarro, most of Sisley’s paintings before 1870 were destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War of that year, which also saw his father’s ruin, and Sisley and his family enter abject poverty. Without a modern catalogue raisoné, it is very hard to know whether Sisley did attempt any series prior to 1893.
Both Shone and the essays and commentary in Stevens state that he often produced pairs or small groups of paintings with very similar views of the same motif, such as three of the Chemin de l’Etarché in Louveciennes, 1872-4. However none of these appears to comes close to my criteria for series paintings.
Sisley’s first series meeting my criteria appears to be that of the waterside at Saint-Mammès, an apparently large but loose and branched series painted in 1884-5, but these are not recognised as such by either Shone or Stevens.
They were followed by a branched and possibly small series of Poplars at Moret-sur-Loing, over the period 1888-92, of which I have identified just five, but suspect that there are a few more to add to that when his new catalogue raisoné is published.
These two series are interesting because they precede recognition of his close friend Monet’s Grainstacks (1891), and Pissarro’s first major series (1893 or later).
Another similarly loose and branched series appears to be that of Moret-sur-Loing Bridge and Town, painted in 1892-3, while Monet was working on his highly successful series of Rouen Cathedral.
There is no doubt though that Sisley’s most formal and conscious attempt at series painting is that of the Church at Moret-sur-Loing, a tight series with two branches consisting of 14 paintings, completed in 1893-4.
Prior to the latter two series, particularly that of the Church at Moret-sur-Loing, none of Sisley’s series appears to have been intended to form a series, but have become such as a result of his way of working. He appears to have picked an area and sequentially adjusted the viewpoint and motif over a period of time, as he worked those compositions which he felt would be most successful. This is clear with the Saint-Mammès series, for instance.
Signs of change started with Moret-sur-Loing Bridge and Town, and the Church at Moret-sur-Loing was a series planned from the outset as such. All the indications are that this was a response to Monet’s success with his series paintings. Given Sisley’s continuing commercial failure, it is most likely that the prospect of better sales and increased income played a part in his decision to paint that series. Sadly he was unsuccessful in that goal.
If Pissarro’s series paintings were predominantly of bustling cityscapes, and Monet’s of simple unpopulated motifs, Sisley’s are different again. As with most of his paintings, they are traditional landscapes set at the interface between man and nature, with the exception of the Church at Moret-sur-Loing, which is an architectural study. However the latter remains quite distinct in its approach from that of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral.
Currently it is very difficult to study Sisley’s series in any greater depth, because his work and little remaining correspondence are hard to access, and there has been no biography published. However indications are that Sisley gradually assembled series of paintings as a result of his working process, until he deliberately set out to paint his tight series of the Church at Moret-sur-Loing in the knowledge of Monet’s commercial success.
My next article in this series will review Monet’s work in a similar manner, where there is an excess of literature and other evidence, but also plenty of myths.
Shone R (1994) Sisley, 2nd edn, Colour Library, Phaidon. ISBN 978 0 7148 3051 3. (An excellent introductory account by the best modern scholar, large format with excellent reproductions, although inevitably only a small selection.)
Shone R (1992, revisions 2008) Sisley, Phaidon. ISBN 978 0 7148 3892 2. (The definitive book, carefully researched, large format, and excellently illustrated with many of his works. Strongly recommended.)
Stevens MA ed. (1992) Alfred Sisley, Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 05244 8. (Large format, beautiful reproductions, excellent essays. From the first and most recent major retrospective, but now out of print.)