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.
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.
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.
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 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…”
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…”
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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…”