Pure Landscapes: Alfred Sisley, 1880-84

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Loing Canal (1884), oil on canvas, 38 x 55 cm, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1880, Alfred Sisley and his family were on the move again, to the area of 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 his painting for much of the rest of his life. Their first house there was in Veneux-Nadon (now Veneux-Les Sablons), on the road to the village of By.

Moret had good rail connections with central Paris, although in 1881 Sisley wrote that the journey took two hours, sufficiently long for him to excuse himself from visiting the city. He lived there in quiet isolation with his family; a few visitors such as Berthe Morisot and Stéphane Mallarmé made their way out to see him. But the nineteen years that he lived in or near Moret were highly productive: a total of 550 oil paintings, some sketchbooks, and a few pastels.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), On the Hills of Moret in the Spring – Morning (1880), oil on canvas, 65 x 92.2 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

Sisley also experimented with his facture and style a little at this time. On the Hills of Moret in the Spring – Morning from 1880 looks down from one of those low hills towards the town. The brushwork in the foreground is composed of short strokes of colour and of near-white, giving the hillside a distinctive texture.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Walnut Tree in a Thomery Field (1880), oil on canvas, 57 x 71 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Walnut Tree in a Thomery Field (1880), oil on canvas, 57 x 71 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

Painted in the same year, presumably well into the summer, Sisley’sWalnut Tree in a Thomery Field (1880) has its subject carefully constructed on anatomical principles. The paint has again been applied in finer strokes of contrasting colours and tones, giving an overall effect of shimmer, particularly in the river. This gives a rougher texture to the bark of the trunk, and a granularity throughout the canopy of the walnut tree, against which the two women in white really pop out.

In case you’re wondering, Thomery is another village near Moret-sur-Loing, on the west bank of the River Seine, and due east of Fontainebleau.

This was his response to the challenge made by Émile Zola that year, claiming that the Impressionists had failed to create masterpieces which would stand the test of time – perhaps the greatest critical error that Zola ever made. Unlike the others, Sisley remained committed to painting in front of the motif, rather than retreating into the studio as Pissarro and Monet did. He changed his compositions, use of colour, and technique, but stayed the Impressionist course.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Small Meadows in Spring – By (c 1881), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted in the early spring of 1881 near the village of By, Small Meadows in Spring – By shows younger trees, their branches just starting to show the first leaves as they emerge from bud. The paint surface is similarly textured with slightly larger strokes of contrasting colour.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Orchard in Spring – By (1881), oil on canvas, 54 × 72 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Slightly later in the same spring, near the same village, the emergence of leaves in Orchard in Spring – By is further advanced, and depicted in a similar style. Although some of the marks used for vegetation, in the grass, for example, are orientated, there seems little tendency for the swirls and whorls seen in Vincent van Gogh’s landscapes.

By the end of 1881, the Sisley family had moved into the town of Moret-sur-Loing itself. This move was apparently financed in part by a loan from Durand-Ruel. About a year later, Alfred Sisley decided that the air in Moret didn’t suit him (or possibly he needed to keep on the move from those that he owed money to), and they moved to live in Les Sablons until 1886.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Windy Day at Véneux (1882), The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

Depicting the wind is a remarkably tough challenge for the pure landscape artist. In Sisley’s Windy Day at Véneux (1882), he succeeds by means of orientation of coarser brushstrokes to impart the look of lateral movement in its foliage. The texture of those marks is coarser again, and more in keeping with classical Impressionism.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Willows on the Banks of the Orvanne (1883), oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Willows on the Banks of the Orvanne (1883) is another challenging motif which Sisley paints convincingly. An irregular row of pollarded willows, with well-developed heads, crosses the foreground, behind which there is the river Orvanne, reeds, and a tall stand of poplars. Behind this dense succession of trees is a fence, field, and distant buildings, at the midpoint of the painting.

The colours used actually reverse the transition normally seen in aerial perspective, and despite the dense branches, the painting maintains those planes and does not dissolve into confusion. Its single figure, leaning at the base of the nearest willow to the right, is staffage to break the rhythm of the reeds, rather than any hint at social comment.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), A Corner of the Wood at Les Sablons, or The Road to the Edge of the Wood (1883), oil on canvas, 60.5 x 73.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Rich in autumnal reds, A Corner of the Wood at Les Sablons (1883) is a simpler motif which is dominated by the framing and leading trees, painted in Sisley’s mature style. Les Sablons is a small town close to Saint-Mammès.

Bemberg Fondation - Les bords du loing vers Moret - Alfred Sisley 1883
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Banks of the Loing towards Moret (1883), oil on canvas, 50 x 73 cm, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

During Sisley’s time at Moret, he explored the banks of the rivers and canal there, producing some of his best-known paintings. The Banks of the Loing towards Moret from 1883 is one his earlier riverside views, showing the unusual combinations of reflections of tall trees, working craft and small industry, and distant chalk cliffs.

Bemberg Fondation Toulouse - Le canal du Loing - Alfred Sisley 1884 Inv.2086 38x55
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), The Loing Canal (1884), oil on canvas, 38 x 55 cm, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

This view of The Loing Canal from 1884 is another fine example from near Saint-Mammès. This waterway runs parallel to the River Loing, connecting the Briare Canal to the River Seine, and is one of the series of waterways which join Paris to Lyon, known as the Bourbonnais Route. These were constructed in the early eighteenth century, and still carry barges of grain from the farms in central France.

As with many of his waterside paintings, much of the canvas is occupied by the sky, which Sisley wrote that he always painted first so as to set the scene and mood for the whole painting.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), June Morning in Saint-Mammès (1884), oil on canvas, 54.6 x 73.4 cm, Bridgestone Museum of Art ブリヂストン美術館, Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, here is Sisley’s June Morning in Saint-Mammès from 1884, showing this small freshwater port and some of its residents out on their business, as another boat makes it way up the River Seine.

Each of these locations was within easy walking distance of the Sisleys’ succession of houses.


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.