Pure Landscapes: Alfred Sisley, 1875-79

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Boat in the Flood at Port-Marly (1876), oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

At some time during the winter of 1874-75, the Sisleys moved from Louveciennes to nearby Marly-le-Roi. With his experience painting in England fresh in his memory, it was here that Sisley reached his mature style, and started to paint some of the greatest Impressionist landscapes.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring (1875), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 99.6 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Sisley must have painted The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring soon after he had moved to Marly-le-Roi in 1875. It’s one of the grandest panoramic views in the Impressionist canon, caught at the perfect moment with blossom on so many of the trees. Although the artist must by this stage have adopted Pissarro’s technique of painting in front of the same motif for several sessions, the image he has recorded retains an atmosphere of the instantaneous.

The detail below shows the careful balance Sisley has struck between detail and a painterly facture: you can count the windows on the large house, but the boats on the river are wonderfully gestural, and the far distance a blur.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring (detail) (1875), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 99.6 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.
Alfred Sisley, Forge at Marly-le-Roi (1875), oil on canvas, 55 x 73.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. EHN & DIJ Oakley.
Alfred Sisley, Forge at Marly-le-Roi (1875), oil on canvas, 55 x 73.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. EHN & DIJ Oakley.

Although there are several well-known Impressionist paintings of factories belching smoke into the countryside, the French Impressionists showed little interest in either heavy industrial processes or their workers, at a time when Naturalist and other artists were painting influential industrial motifs. One of the few convincing examples is Sisley’s Forge at Marly-le-Roi (1875), which shows a smaller-scale and more traditional sight.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Road from Versailles to Saint-Germain (1875), oil on canvas, 51.1 x 65.1 cm, Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sisley’s paintings of trees in the 1870s show the beginning of a style of his own, as seen in The Road from Versailles to Saint-Germain from 1875, which is quite unlike earlier ‘road’ paintings by Pissarro and Sisley. There is still some anatomical structure, but the canopies are now exuberant and more substantial. The range of greens used for foliage is quite limited, although covering a wide range of tones.

Following the financial failure of the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 and Durand-Ruel’s cessation of purchases from the Impressionists, some of the group took part in an auction of their work at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1875. Sisley was among them, but Pissarro avoided participating. The plan proved misguided and helped them little: Sisley sold twenty paintings in total, all for derisory prices, and twelve of them to Durand-Ruel, who in the long run must have profited most from the sale.

Sisley was more fortunate in other events: in March 1876 (and again in the autumn of that year) the River Seine burst its banks and there was widespread flooding, which is depicted in some of his best known paintings.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Flood at Port-Marly (1876), oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Flood at Port-Marly (1876) is perhaps the most famous of these works, and was among Sisley’s paintings which he exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition, held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in April 1876. Although the sky is broken, it still looks like rain, as local residents take to their boats on what should have been dry land.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Boat in the Flood at Port-Marly (1876), oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In another view of the same building from a different angle, in Boat in the Flood at Port-Marly (1876), Sisley captures the complex rhythm of the leafless pollards standing proud of the water.

Alfred Sisley, The First Hoarfrost (1876), oil on canvas, Bridgeman Art Library. WikiArt.
Alfred Sisley, The First Hoarfrost (1876), oil on canvas, Bridgeman Art Library. WikiArt.

A few of Sisley’s paintings of this period are more experimental. The First Hoarfrost (1876), for instance, with its bright colours and high chroma, might appear more typical of later works by Pissarro.

During the winter of 1877-78, the Sisleys were on the move again, a little closer to the centre of Paris, to Sèvres, the town dominated by one of the most famous porcelain factories in Europe.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Sèvres Bridge (1877), oil on canvas, 38.1 x 46.4 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and Merion, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

This oil sketch of the famous Sèvres Bridge is clearly dated 1877, but the trees are still in full leaf and there are no signs of autumn colours, so perhaps it was painted before Sisley’s move to the town.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Rest along the Stream. Edge of the Wood (1878), oil on canvas, 73 x 80 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. EHN & DIJ Oakley.

Rest along the Stream, Edge of the Wood (1878) must be one of Sisley’s finest paintings, and one of the great landscapes of the century. It features multiple stands of trees, each of a different species, and each depicted with remarkable skill. The line of birch trees in the foreground is detailed anatomically, with most branches shown reaching out into the canopy. Trunks are delicately coloured, textured, and shown with dappled shadows. Their foliage consists of carefully graded brushstrokes to give detail of their individual leaves, gradually merging in the distance.

On the opposite bank five pollards are flush with fresh growth, and behind them the sunlight brings out the high canopies of more distant trees. To the right (and in front) of the cottage are lower trees with near-white lush foliage. Behind them all stands a high wood, great branches and leaves lit by the sun.

The lines of the trees, stream, and the gash of sky all lead the eye to the distant bridge, and the figure of a woman, her back against the foot of one of the birches in the foreground.

In the Spring of 1879, the Sisleys moved within Sèvres, and their financial crisis deepened. Alfred borrowed from Georges Charpentier, a publisher and patron, and Eugène Murer, a restaurateur and collector.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes (c 1879), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 55.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes probably from 1879 is an example of his more sketchy plein air paintings from his time at Sèvres, and a more traditional perspective view of a road of the time. This section of the road is close to Louveciennes, and was the main route between Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), View of Sèvres (1879), oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In this period, Sisley also painted some more urban landscapes, such as this View of Sèvres (1879) with its significantly higher chroma. This might compare with the more ‘finished’ views of the Côtes of Pontoise painted by Pissarro around this time.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Washerwomen near Champagne (1879), oil on canvas, 60 by 73 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Sisley also experimented with introducing more figures into the foreground of his landscapes, as in this riverside view of Washerwomen near Champagne from 1879.

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Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Road in the Woods (1879), oil on canvas, 46.3 x 55.8 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

But he remained most at home in the wooded countryside shown in The Road in the Woods (1879) with its less prominent staffage and rich variety of trees and foliage. Alas, this was another of his many landscapes which was sold for the first time in 1916, well after his death, and was first exhibited the following year at Galeries Georges Petit in Paris.

In 1880, the Sisleys were on the move again, to Moret-Sur-Loing, on the eastern edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau and the banks of the rivers Loing and Seine, which was to be the centre for Alfred’s paintings for most of the rest of his life.

References

Wikipedia
Richard Nathanson

Shone R (1992, revisions 2008) Sisley, Phaidon. ISBN 978 0 7148 3892 2.
Stevens MA (1992) Alfred Sisley, Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 05244 8.
Stevens MA (2017) Alfred Sisley, Impressionist Master, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 21557 1.