By the end of their careers, most of the French Impressionists had succeeded both in their art and commercially, with one significant exception: Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), who died in worse financial circumstances than when he had started painting. This article looks at his involvement in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874; I have also written a series of articles covering his whole career, listed at the end.
He was born and brought up in a prosperous Anglo-French family who were merchants in Paris. He was destined to take over the family business, and in pursuit of that was sent to London to study in 1857, where he was apparently so moved by the paintings of JMW Turner and John Constable that he resolved to be an artist instead.
Once he returned to his family in Paris in 1860-1, he had to convince them of his new career, then in the autumn of 1862 started classes in Charles Gleyre’s studio, alongside Pierre-August Renoir, Frédéric Bazille and Claude Monet. He soon started painting en plein air in the old haunts of the Barbizon School in 1861, bringing him into contact with the other budding Impressionists.
This is one of the earliest paintings remaining from the start of Sisley’s career. Although significantly lighter than other works which remained under the influence of the Barbizon School, its trees are constructed anatomically and rendered similarly to contemporary paintings of Corot, the major influence on Sisley’s early style.
In 1865, Sisley started sharing studios in Paris, first with Renoir, before setting himself up in Les Batignolles, close to Bazille’s studio. The following year, he walked through the Forest of Fontainebleau with Renoir, then stayed in Marlotte, where Renoir, Monet, Bazille, Pissarro and Cézanne also visited to paint.
Sisley was more successful with Women Going to the Woods, completed in 1866. This was one of two of his paintings exhibited at the Salon that year, and shows the main street in that Barbizon village of Marlotte with a little rustic staffage.
That year he met Eugénie Lescouezec, and to his parents’ horror, they started living together as a couple. Prior to this, Sisley had been given a fairly generous allowance by his father, and was able to paint without financial worries, but disapproval of the relationship resulted in that being cut. That pushed the couple into dire financial straits, which soon grew even worse when Eugénie became pregnant. They then spent the summer of 1867 together in Honfleur, on the north French coast, another popular location for artists.
Over this period, Sisley had maintained a studio in Bougival, a favourite village with the Impressionists. Soon after the start of the Franco-Prussian War, the village was overrun by Prussian soldiers, who commandeered the studio; many of his early works were lost, just as Pissarro’s were in Louveciennes, just over a mile away.
The Sisleys were forced into the city of Paris, and despite Alfred’s British nationality, they remained trapped there through the siege of the city into the following year. Worse still, the Sisley family business collapsed. Even if Alfred’s parents had relented, they were then in no position to support the artist. His father apparently spent most of his remaining years in a mental hospital as a result.
In 1872, shortly after Monet and his family returned to France, the Sisleys moved in with them in Argenteuil. This marked the start of a highly productive period for Sisley, and, in conjunction with Monet and Renoir, changes in his art. The three concentrated their efforts on the recording of transient effects of light using colour, removal of black from their palettes, and abandoning the traditional ‘finish’ of a painting.
Footbridge at Argenteuil from 1872 is dominated by the perspective projection of the bridge itself, almost to the exclusion of the river below. Sisley’s figures are very gestural but here look more natural in their forms.
From Argenteuil, the Sisleys moved to Voisins-Louveciennes, where they lived in a rented house not far from where Pissarro had lived before the war.
Many of Sisley’s landscapes appear to have been painted en plein air in a single session, and their roughness is a mark of the lack of time to render detail. The Seine at Bougival from 1872 appears less rushed, and may have been the result of two or more sessions in front of the motif, as was often practised by Pissarro, for instance. Its water surface is mirror-smooth, and Sisley has been careful to paint the reflection of the buildings with optical precision.
Sisley’s Fog, Voisins from 1874 is perhaps his equivalent of Pissarro’s Hoar Frost at Ennery (1873). This radical painting shows a fog-cloaked flowerbed in the foreground, the small patch of colour in this garden. The woman isn’t tending her nasturtiums, but toiling away at what will, in a few months time, be carefully prepared and cooked in her kitchen.
Sisley was closely involved with the formation of the Impressionist movement, and exhibited five works in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, listed in its catalogue as:
- Road to Saint-Germain (owned by Durand-Ruel),
- Ile de la Loge (owned by Durand-Ruel),
- The Seine at Port Marly,
- Port Marly, Winter’s Evening.
By far the most formative time of Sisley’s career was after that exhibition. That summer, Sisley accompanied his patron Jean-Baptiste Faure, a celebrated opera singer, on a visit to London. Sisley paid for this trip in kind, providing Faure with six paintings. The two stayed initially in South Kensington before moving out to the Castle Inn near Hampton Court, providing Sisley with the best opportunities to paint.
Hampton Court had long been a major manor house, which was extended to become a royal palace for King Henry VIII. Despite its fine position on the River Thames, it was largely abandoned until Queen Victoria opened it and its gardens to the public.
A decade before his visit, an iron toll bridge had been placed over the River Thames nearby. Sisley seized the moment and painted one of his most unusual views of a bridge, in his Under Hampton Court Bridge from 1874. This carefully aligned projection of the bridge is symmetrical about the centreline of the painting, and the composition is balanced with trees at the left and a building at the right.
The two racing boats seen on the left of that bridge reflected the growing interest in watersports, which Sisley revisited in the most famous of his paintings from this trip to England: Regatta at Molesey (1874), one of the gems of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This was bought by Gustave Caillebotte for his private collection.
Molesey Weir, Hampton Court (1874) shows the weir on the River Thames near the location of that regatta, and presents an excellent collection of different surface effects of water accomplished by the combination of colour and brushwork.
Sisley enjoyed his four months away, and returned to France in time for the winter, at the end of which he and his family moved again to nearby Marly-le-Roi. In just a few paintings over that period he had demonstrated his versatility across a wide range of motifs, and above all his eloquence in using the new Impressionist techniques.
After a devoted and uncompromising career, Alfred Sisley died at Moret-sur-Loing on 29 January 1899, the only British national among the French Impressionists. Their two children were left almost penniless, but later that year an auction of Sisley’s work with contributions from others including Monet, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir, raised over 150,000 Francs, probably more than the lifetime total of Sisley’s sales.
Series on this blog
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.