Alfred Sisley. Part 3 – the latter years.

1882 photograph of Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley returned to France late on October 18th, 1874 after his four-month summer holiday spent in London. Sisley had been living in the town of Louveciennes since 1872 but in the winter of that year, Sisley and his family moved to 2 avenue de l’Abreuvoir in Marly-le-Roi, a commune in the Île-de-France region, in north-central France, located in the western suburbs of Paris, 18 kilometres from the centre of Paris.

The Church at Noisy-le-Roi: Autumn by-Alfred Sisley (1874).

Many art historians believe that during the time Sisley lived in Marly-le-Roi between 1875 and 1880, he produced his finest works.  In the late autumn of 1874 Sisley completed a work featuring the town of Noisy-le-Roi which lay about 4 kilometres south-west of Marly-le-Roi. It was entitled The Church at Noisy-le-Roi: Autumn. In some ways, it is an unusually constructed work. The subject of the painting, the church has been placed in the mid-ground and there is no visual access to it from the foreground. Our view towards it through the foreground landscape is restricted by the fence line and a number of squat trees. The painting was exhibited at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris on 24 March 1875 along with works by Renoir, Monet, and Morisot. It was purchased by Paul Durand Ruel and submitted to the Salon jurists in 1876 but was turned down. The painting was sold on a number of occasions including an 8500 francs sale to Baron Henri de Rothschild in 1899. It was later bought by Sir William Burrell, a Scottish shipping merchant and philanthropist, who in 1944 gave it to the City of Glasgow Corporation. The one proviso was that this work and the whole of his collection was to be housed in a building far enough from the city centre so that the works could be shown to their greatest advantage, and to avoid the damaging effects of air pollution at the time.

The Burrell Collection at Pollok Park, Glasgow

It took the trustees more than 20 years trying to find a suitable resting place for Burrell’s collection, one which met all the criteria set out in the Trust Deed. A venue was finally found in 1967 when the Pollok Estate was given to the city of Glasgow. The Trustees also had to waive certain terms of the deed which allowed the current site, in Pollok Park to be used. The park was only three miles from the city centre but within the city boundaries.  

La barque pendant l’inondation by Alfred Sisley (1876)

In December 1872 Sisley had painted four pictures showing floods at Port-Marly. In 1876 there was another flood and Sisley executed seven paintings as documentary evidence of its different stages, from the first rise in water level to the return of the river to its normal course. Being well settled in Marly-le-Roi, Sisley was there to witness the great floods of 1876. In March that year, the Seine burst its banks and flooded many of the riverside villages and towns including the neighbouring village of Port-Marly. In his 1876 painting, La barque pendant l’inondation (Boat in the Flood) he depicts a wine merchant’s house, À St Nicolas, which almost looks like it is resting on the mirrored surface of the flood waters. The artist produced six paintings of this event. He cleverly captured the great expanse of water with moving reflections that transformed the peaceful house of a wine merchant into something mysterious and poetic. Sisley’s viewing point gave him an oblique-angled view of the scene which meant that the wine-merchant’s shop becomes the predominant feature of the work and Sisley has been able to depict architectural aspects of the building, especially the upper section. The light colour tones are offset by the black pigment used for the window openings giving a sharp contrast between light and dark. The industrialist, Ernest Hoschedé, originally owned the painting.  He was one of the first major supporter of the Impressionists’ art. His wife Alice became Monet’s second wife. A year after Hoschedé bought the painting his business collapsed and he became bankrupt. The painting was later sold by Durand-Ruel to the wealthy art collector, Comte Isaac de Camondo who had amassed a large number of works by the French Impressionists. He bequeathed this work and a number of other paintings from his collection to The Louvre in 1908, three years before his death. The painting was transferred to its current home, Musée d’Orsay, in 1986.

The Flood at Port-Marly by Alfred Sisley (1876)

The work we see above, The Flood at Port-Marly is housed in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid. In the painting we see the rue de Paris in Port-Marly. On the right, behind the trees, we can see the overflowing River Seine. The sky is littered by wind-swept clouds which scurry across the sky. Sisley was able to give a marked emphasis to the movement of the clouds through the use of a low horizon line. We can see the road and how the water has flooded the pavements. The sun has reappeared and the water level is starting to recede, which allowed Sisley to set up his easel in the middle of the street and once again return to the use of a central perspective which can be found in many of his paintings. This technique derives from the classical tradition of French landscape painting. In September 1876, shortly after Sisley had concluded his series on the floods at Port-Marly, Stéphane Mallarmé, a French poet and critic, published an article on the Impressionist artists in the London magazine The Art Monthly Review. He said of Sisley:

“…He captures the fleeting effects of light. He observes a passing cloud and seems to depict it in its flight. The crisp air goes through the canvas and the foliage stirs and shivers…”

A Street in Louveciennes by Alfred Sisley (1878)

Sisley’s relationship with the Impressionists can be gauged by a set of statistics. At the first exhibition in 1874, Sisley exhibited five paintings, in the second exhibition in 1876 he had eight paintings displayed and in the third Impressionist Exhibition seventeen of his works were displayed. He did not exhibit any of his paintings at the fourth, fifth or sixth shows. So why? It is thought that two of the reasons could have been the lack of critical acclaim and success at the first three exhibitions but maybe more importantly there was a fragile sense of unity and some tension between the painters at these joint exhibitions. The fourth, fifth and sixth exhibitions were dominated by Degas and the works on show tended to be figure painting rather than landscape painting so this could also be a reason for Sisley backing away. There were few Impressionist artists that had a foot both in the figurative and landscape camps but Pissarro was the one exception and he exhibited at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions. Sisley was also aware that he had to sell more works and become more well known to dealers and so turned back to the Salon. In a letter to the French journalist, author, and art critic, Théodore Duret Sisley wrote:

“…I am tired of vegetating, as I have been doing for so long. The moment has come for me to make a decision. It is true our exhibitions have served to make us money and in this have been useful to me, but I believe we must not isolate ourselves too long. We are still far from the moment we shall be able to do without the prestige attached to official exhibitions. I am therefore determined to submit to the Salon…”

A Turn of the River Loing, Summer by Alfred Sisley (1896)

Following the third Impressionist exhibition Sisley tried to get his works accepted by the Paris Salon jurists but failed. In October 1878 Sisley left Marly and moved to avenue de Bellevue in Sèvres, a town in the southwestern suburbs of Paris. Sisley’s finances were deteriorating fast. His paintings only sold for small amounts. He was borrowing money so that he and his wife were able to survive and, to make things worse, some of the lenders were demanding repayment of his debts. In 1880 Sisley could no longer afford to live in Sèvres and moved his family to Moret-sur-Loing, a town south of Paris on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau.

A Village Street in Winter, by Alfred Sisley (1893)

Paul Durand-Ruel kept buying paintings from the Impressionists and having them exhibited at various exhibitions and then hopefully selling them on for a profit. However, around the late part of the 1870’s the sale of his paintings was much lower in comparison to the number he had purchased and so he had to source some finance to cover his future buying plans. He turned to Jules Feder, the head of the Union Générale bank in Paris and an important early collector of Impressionist art. In 1880, Feder advanced a great deal of money to Paul Durand-Ruel, enabling the dealer to resume purchasing work from the Impressionists. Immediately upon receiving Jules Feder’s support Durand-Ruel acquired thirty-six paintings from Sisley. This all changed in February 1882 when Union Générale bank collapsed which, in turn, brought about the collapse of the French Stock Exchange, and triggered a general recession, and Jules Feder, the head of the bank, was ruined and because of that Durand-Ruel had to pay the banker back all the money that he had advanced him. Durand-Ruel, with no money to buy further Impressionist paintings, resulted in an extremely uncertain few years for the artists whom Durand-Ruel had supported, particularly Sisley… For the next several years Durand-Ruel was unable to advance money to the Impressionist painters he had always generously supported, and those works he did buy were at much reduced prices and because of this, Sisley was especially hard-pressed to make ends meet.

Bords du Loing, Saint-Mammes (The River Loing at Saint-Mammes) by Alfred Sisley (1885)

Things were changing for Sisley. Paul Durand-Ruel purchased his last painting by Sisley, Saint-Mamme’s from the River Loing, for 200 francs in February 1886. The Impressionists were starting to go their own ways. Renoir and Monet had gained public recognition whereas Sisley had not. This must have hurt Sisley and according to John Rewald in his 1961 book, The History of Impressionism, Sisley had become suspicious and sulky not even seeing his old companions anymore. The French art critic of the time, Arsène Alexandre wrote:

“…he [Sisley] added to his woes by creating imaginary ones for himself. He was irritable, discontented, agitated…..He became utterly miserable and found life increasingly difficult…”

Bridge at Villeneuve la Garenne by Alfred Sisley (1872)

Whereas Monet and Pissarro came back into Paul Durand-Ruel’s fold, Sisley refused. Durand-Ruel and his sons had bounced back and in the 1890’s once again had a successful network of connections in Europe and America who bought from the company. Probably due to his state of depression, Sisley ignored the opportunity to return to Durand-Ruel and benefit from the sales of his work. It was the beginning of the end. Sisley’s wife Eugénie died of cancer in October 1898. Sisley, who was ill himself, did not attend the funeral. He had been attending a doctor for five months but in November 1898 he suffered a massive haemorrhage and his health was deteriorating rapidly. Sisley died of cancer on January 29th 1899, aged 59. Sisley was buried on February 1st 1899 at the cemetery in Moret attended by his children and fellow artists such as Monet, Renoir, and Tavernier.

Dawn by, Alfred Sisley, (1878)

Sisley had been in the process of gaining French citizenship before he died, but on his death. remained an English citizen. His son Pierre settled his estate. According to records at Dammarie-les-Lys, the regional archives for Seine-et-Marne, Sisley’s legacy to his children comprised of his wardrobe, worth 50 francs, furniture worth 950 francs and money obtained from his paintings worth 115,640 francs, making it a total of 116,640 francs, equivalent to £4,665.

The Seine at Port Marly with Piles of Sand by Alfred Sisley (1875)

I end this blog with the words of Monet who, a week before Sisley’s death, wrote about Sisley to his friend Gustave Geffroy, the French journalist, art critic, historian, and novelist:

“…Sisley is said to be extremely ill. He is truly a great artist and I believe he is as great a master as any who have ever lived. I looked at some of his works again, which have a rare breadth of vision and beauty, especially one of a flood, which is a masterpiece…”

Alfred Sisley. Part 2 – London and Paul Durand-Ruel

Alfred Sisley by Renoir (1876)

The year is 1870 and on July 19th France had declared war on Prussia. The war went badly for France and the siege of the Paris ended in an armistice on January 28th 1871. It was a crushing defeat for the French and for the Parisians three months of further violence and bloodshed was to follow from March to May of that year with the uprising known as the Paris Commune. Alfred Sisley lost everything that he owned at his apartment in Bougival. Like so many others, his house was looted and destroyed by the occupying forces. As mentioned in the previous blog, worse was to follow as in 1871 his father’s business collapsed and his father became bankrupt and later died penniless. Alfred Sisley had now to rely on the sale of is paintings for he and his family to survive. Artists needed a way to exhibit and sell their works and at one time the Paris Salon was the only and the way to do that and that depended on their work being accepted by the Salon jurists, but then came the art dealers with their private galleries and this meant the artists did not have to rely on the Salon to market their work.

Enter Paul Durand-Ruel who was to play a part in Alfred Sisley’s life in the 1870’s. Durand-Ruel was born in Paris, on October 31st, 1831, the son of shopkeepers Jean Durand and Marie Ruel. It was in their shop that they allowed famous artists to display their paintings and sketches. In the 1840’s, their shop soon became a regular rendezvous for artists and collectors alike, so much so that Jean Durand decided to turn their shop into an art gallery. Their seventeen-year-old son, Paul, joined the family business in 1848. It must have been an exciting time for the young man as he was sent all over Europe to seek out new artists and sell their paintings. In the mid-nineteenth century, his father’s gallery specialized in paintings produced by the landscape artists of the Barbizon School, such as Corot. Paul Durand-Ruel knowledge of art grew and in 1863 he was acknowledged as the firm’s resident art expert. Following the death of his father in 1865, Paul Durand-Ruel took over the business.

Photograph of  Paul Durand-Ruel’s grand salon at Rue de Rome . Paris, with ‘Dance in the City’ by Renoir

During the Franco-Prussian War Durand-Ruel left Paris and escaped to London. It was in the English capital that he met up with a number of exiled French artists including Charles-François Daubigny, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro. Paul set up his own London art gallery at 168 New Bond Street and in December 1870, he staged the first of ten Annual Exhibitions of the Society of French Artists.  Soon Durand-Ruel became acquainted with their works and through them met their fellow artists.

Paul Durand-Ruel by Renoir (1910)

Paul Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, and there, he secured Impressionism’s place in history through tireless promotion across Europe and the United States and enthusiastic Americans ensured its success. Durand-Ruel discovered, promoted, protected, advocated, and finally exported the work of Sisley, Renoir, Monet, Degas, and Pissarro. Of al the art dealers, he was by far the most committed to their art. He invested in it at a time when all they had to show were refusals and derision at their efforts. It was an interesting relationship between Durand-Ruel and the artists. It was almost a one-way association. He offered them passionate and financial support, the painters repaid him with the only thing they had: their loyalty, which in a way, counted for nothing since he was almost the only dealer who wanted their work. Often, he would over-pay for their finished paintings so as to keep their prices up, but he was rarely able to sell it on. He admitted he was not a good businessman and once said that if he had died when he was in his mid-fifties, he would have died penniless. This was mainly due to the Paris Bourse crash of 1882 which was the worst crisis in the French economy in the nineteenth century. Durand-Ruel was forced to repay the money he had borrowed from Jules Feder, 0ne of the struggling directors of the ill-fated l’Union Générale bank, which eventually collapsed. It was a bank established by Catholic grandees in 1876 to compete with the famous German-Jewish Rothschild bankers.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872,

However, everything changed for Durand-Ruel around 1892 when he succeeded in establishing the market for Impressionism in the United States. The first official French Impressionist exhibition in the United States opened at New York City’s American Art Association from April to May, 1886, and later, in 1887, it moved to the New York City’s National Academy of Design with additional works of art. Of the American buying public Durand-Ruel is quoted as saying:

“…Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after having bought so many Monets and Renoirs. The two exhibitions there in 1886 saved me. The American public bought moderately . . . but thanks to that public, Monet and Renoir were enabled to live and after that the French public followed suit…”

In 1887, Paul Durand-Ruel opened a New York City gallery at 297 Fifth Avenue named Durand-Ruel & Sons; two years later, in September 1889, it moved to 315 Fifth Avenue, and finally, in 1894, to 398 Fifth Avenue. The gallery was managed by his three sons, Charles, Joseph, and Georges.

Alfred Sisley may not have lived to share the American public’s recognition enjoyed by the likes of Renoir, Monet and Degas but they still liked his atmospheric landscapes which were shown at many of the American exhibitions and were part of many private collections before 1914.

In July 1874, Sisley made a return trip to London with his friend the famous French Opéra-Comique singer, Jean-Baptiste Faure, an avid collector of Impressionist paintings. Faure bankrolled their trip by buying six of Sisley’s works. The pair stayed initially in South Kensington before moving to Hampton Court. Hampton Court was a popular leisure resort with good accessibility to central London. In that year Sisley completed a painting depicting part of the bridge joining Hampton Court with the small village of East Molesey on the south side of the river Thames. It was entitled Une Auberge à Hampton Court (Hampton Court Bridge: The Castle Inn). The Castle Inn, which some believe could have been where the pair were staying, is the focal point of the painting. The relaxed leisurely feeling is depicted by the elegantly clothed figure as he saunters down the road towards us. Sisley has overpainted the light grey ground with bright tones. Look how Sisley has emphasised the broad gravel street by placing his figures to the very edge of it and by doing this he has established a broad vacant zone directly in front of us.

The Bridge at Hampton Court, Alfred Sisley, (1874)

Another work painted by Sisley in 1874 featured the opposite end of the bridge at Hampton Court and is entitled Hampton Court Bridge: The Mitre Inn. The bridge in the painting was the third one on this site having been built in 1865. This was replaced by the current bridge, constructed of reinforced concrete, faced with red bricks and white Portland Stone, in 1933. The inn is the red brick building on the left. There was an inn at each end of the bridge. On the south end was the Castle Inn (previous painting) and on the north end there stood the Mitre Inn. In this painting we once again see the depiction of part of the cast iron bridge which spanned the Thames at Hampton Court and it is thought that Sisley painted this view whilst on the terrace of the Castle Inn.

Regatta at Hampton Court, by Alfred Sisley (1874),

This viewpoint was used by him for his painting, Regatta at Hampton Court. The large trees on the left and centre of the painting hide the entrance to Hampton Court, one of the royal palaces.

Under the bridge at Hampton Court, Alfred Sisley (1874)

By far one of the quirkiest paintings of the bridge by Sisley was his work entitled Under Hampton Court Bridge. The dramatic depiction is painted from beneath the cast iron and brick bridge and the view between the avenue of bridge piers is of the far riverbank and a pair of rowing boats.

Three paintings of the Hampton Court bridge by Sisley, a bridge which was not known for its beauty, with one commentator of the time asserting that

“…it was one of the ugliest bridges in England, and a flagrant eyesore and disfigurement both to the river and to Hampton Court…” 

However, for Sisley it was a structure worthy of his time and effort.

..………………to be concluded

Alfred Sisley. Part 1: The early years.

1882 photograph of Alfred Sisley

The artist I am looking at today is not one of my “unknown” painters I often showcase. This artist is well known and his works are in collections all around the world. Today’s featured painter is Alfred Sisley.

Felicity and William Sisley, Alfred’s parents.

Alfred Sisley was born on October 30th 1839 at 19 rue des Trois Bornes which was in what was then the 4th arrondissement of Paris. He was the son of the British couple, William Sisley, and Felicity Sisley (née Sell) and although born in France, he retained his British citizenship. Little is known about his siblings. Some articles say he was one of four children, others say he just had one older sibling who died young. Alfred’s maternal ancestors came from the English county of Kent and were said to have been smugglers and tradesmen. His parents were affluent. His father owned a silk exportation business which he had established in 1839. Little is known about Sisley’s schooling except to say in the Spring of 1857, when he was almost eighteen years old, his father sent him to London to learn how to embark on a career in commerce. It is clear that Sisley had neither an aptitude for, nor a love of, commerce. However, the upside for young Alfred was that being in London he was able to visit museums and exhibitions and began to fall in love with the works of Gainsborough, Turner and Constable as well as the Dutch and Flemish artists, such as Hobbema and Ruisdael, which he saw at the National Gallery.

Portrait of Alfred Sisley by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (ca. 1875)

In 1860 Sisley returned home to Paris. Whether his father realised that his son lacked the ability to follow in his footsteps as a tradesman or whether Sisley had bombarded his father with his desire to become an artist, will never be known, but in 1860, Alfred Sisley began studying at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts within the atelier of Swiss artist Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. Many famous French artists had passed through Gleyere’s studio, such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Auguste Toulmouche.

Sisley, like his friend Renoir and Monet, left the atelier Gleyre around 1864 when it closed and they decided to move to the rural area of Fontainebleau and the small town of Barbizon. Sisley worked in Chailly-en-Bière and later in Marlotte near Fontainebleau. Renoir recalled the days spent with Sisley. In a letter to the art critic Adolphe Tavernier, Renoir wrote:

“…When I was young, I would take my paintbox and a shirt, Sisley and I would leave Fontainebleau and walked until we reached a village. Sometimes we did not come back until we had run out of money about a week later…”

The Inn of Mother Anthony by Renoir (1866)

Renoir had been sharing Sisley’s Paris studio since July 1865 and in February 1866 the two of them along with Renoir’s friend, the artist Jules Le Coeur set out to walk across the Forest of Fontainebleau passing through the villages of Milly and Courances on their way to Marlotte, a village on the southern edge of the Fontainebleau Forest, close to the River Loing. Renoir immortalised the group in his 1866 painting The Inn of Mère Anthony. In the depiction we see that Renoir has had his friends, Le Coeur, Sisley, Mère Anthony and her daughter pose for the painting in the main room of the inn at Marlotte.

Rue de village à Marlotte (Village Street in Marlotte) by Alfred Sisley (1866). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

One of many paintings completed by Sisley around this time was entitled Village Street in Marlotte. The painting portrays a solitary figure chopping wood. A sombre palette of greens, browns, and grey-blues underscores an overall feeling of isolation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sisley seldom travelled and did not feel compelled to depict urban life, industrialization, and the more dramatic aspects of nature, contenting himself with painting the world close at hand.

Women going to the Woods by Alfred Sisley (1866)

Another work by Sisley was entitled Women going to the Woods and depicts three elderly women wrapped up against the cold who are setting out to the forest, probably to collect firewood and is a reminder that people were reliant on the forest for their existence. Both of Sisley paintings were exhibited at the 1866 Paris Salon.

Sisley and his Wife by Renoir (1868)

In 1866 Sisley met a thirty-two-year-old florist named Marie-Louise Eugénie Adelaide Lescouezec. According to Renoir she seemed “exceedingly well bred.” Little is known about her upbringing but reports have it that her family’s financial hardships forced her to become an artist’s model, which often had an unsavoury connotation. Yet another account tells of her early life being difficult after her father, an officer, was killed in a duel when she was a young girl. None of this affected in any way Sisley’s love for her and he was to remain devoted to her until her death in 1898.   On June 17th 1868, a year after they met, the couple’s son Pierre was born, followed by a daughter, Jeanne-Adèle, on January 29th 1869. Renoir painted the couple the year they were married.  She was dressed in a bright-coloured red and yellow gown.

Avenue of Chestnut Trees near La Celle-Saint-Cloud by Alfred Sisley (1867)

At the 1868 Salon, Sisley had just one of his paintings exhibited. It was his Avenue of Chestnut Trees near La Celle-Saint-Cloud which he had completed the previous year. It was a large painting (96 x 122cms) and depicts a verdant view through a densely wooded part of the forest, six kilometres west of the village of La-Celle-Saint-Cloud, located in the western suburbs of Paris, 15 kms from the centre. This was the third time Sisley had depicted the forest in his painting. There had been two earlier works of differing sizes, both entitled Avenue of Chestnut Trees at La-Celle-Saint-Cloud, which he completed in 1865. The forest was very popular with Parisians who wanted to briefly escape city life. Look how Sisley has used a shifting range of greens and browns to bring the picture to life. Note the clever way he has used dappled brushwork on the trunks of the trees. Look how we are led through the avenue of trees which propels us back, penetrating the depth of the canvas. If you look closely at Sisley’s work you will notice a solitary deer on the right mid-ground almost lost from view camouflaged by the dark tree trunks. So why the solitary deer? It could well have something to do with having the painting accepted into the Salon by the jurists. Landscape paintings had an inferior position in the hierarchy of pictorial-subject matter by the art establishment, so maybe Sisley realised that a connection with the monarchy would stand him in good stead of having the Salon jury accept the work as his depiction was of the royal hunting grounds of Napoleon III.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema, (1689)

This view down a majestic avenue of trees harks back to paintings Sisley may have seen whilst in London, such as one of his favourite artist’s works, The Avenue at Middelharnis, by Hobbema which hangs in the National Gallery.

Forest of Fontainebleau, undergrowth at Bas-Bréau by Gustave LeGray (1852) Albumen print from a waxed paper negative

Another work which may have influenced him and which he had probably seen at Musée d’Orsay, was Gustave LeGray’s 1855 photograph Forêt de Fontainebleau, sous-bois au Bas-Bréau [Forest of Fontainebleau, undergrowth at Bas-Bréau]. LeGray had received a commission from the committee for historic monuments to photograph the most noteworthy monuments in France and in 1852 and again in 1857 he produced two large collections of photographs of the Forest of Fontainebleau. It is reported that during his walks around Bas-Bréau, in the heart of the forest, LeGray would place his camera right in the middle of the path, at the exact place where he had been struck by the light shimmering through the foliage and he used the line of the path, in this rich composition, to draw the eye towards the clearing where the tree trunks are bathed in light. In this way he produced the image of a site that was very popular with painters. The depiction is all about the forest. There are no human or animal presence to disturb the natural spectacle.

Barges on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris by Alfred Sisley (1870)

Of all the Impressionist, Sisley was the one who loved the countryside the most and liked to paint rural scenes. He was not an urban painter and only completed a smaller number of works which focused on Paris and the Parisian scene favoured by the likes of Renoir and Monet. Indeed, of the very few paintings directly inspired by the French capital, some were depictions of the Canal Saint-Martin in the north-east of the city. It is a 4.6 km long canal in Paris, with nine locks, connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq to the River Seine. Originally built to supply the city with fresh water to support a growing population and help avoid diseases such as dysentery and cholera while also supplying fountains and allowing the streets to be cleaned. Construction of the canal started in 1802 and was completed in 1825. The canal was also used to supply Paris with grain, building materials and other goods, carried on canal boats. It formed part of a continuous network of waterways extending across the city connecting the upper and lower parts of the Seine. One of Sisley’s painting featuring the waterway was his 1870 painting Barges on the Canal Saint-Martin.

A similar work was his 1870 painting Vue du Canal Sint-Martin, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay. Whereas other artists like Monet and Renoir

The Canal St Martin by Alfred Sisley (1870)

focused on the beauty of the French capital with its spacious sunlit boulevards created by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann and the newly built apartment blocks. For artists like Renoir and Monet urban life was all about wealth and leisure. For Sisley it was about toil and poverty. He wanted to concentrate on the reality of Paris and life in the capital and not just the picturesque but idealised version of the metropolis and so he focused on the working quays of the Canal Saint-Martin. In the painting we see a wide stretch of the Canal St Martin near the Bassin de la Villette. On either side of the canal, houses and warehouses overlook the waterway and in the central midground is one of the locks. Further back and in the direction of central Paris buildings appear through the haze. Looking at his depiction we know there is a strong breeze which stirs up the water and the time of day deduced by looking at the length of the shadows made by the trees in the water, it must have been around midday. What is also important about Sisley’s painting is the way he has depicted the cloud formations and the nature of the light and its reflections on the water. He captures the moment with his use of a silvery palette of blues and greys, constantly thickening the paint for the highlights on the water. It would be one of the trademarks of his work as an Impressionist.

Alfred Sisley’s finances at this time were said to be at best, perilous and he often had to turn to friends and family for loans. Things were to get worse with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. From September 1870 to January 1871, the French capital was besieged by Prussian forces and one of the dire consequences for Sisley was that his father’s business collapsed and William Sisley was financially ruined. His father lost everything and died shortly thereafter. Alfred’s money stream from his father was over. Sisley’s sole means of support became the sale of his works. 

..……….to be continued