(Alfred Sisley, 1839-1899)
The landscape paintings of Alfred Sisley occupy an inviolable position in the history of early Impressionism. His depictions of the Thames at Hampton Court, the Seine in flood, the snow bound suburbs of Paris are indispensable to an account of Impressionist landscape painting in the 1870s. Indeed, they are so fundamentally representative of our notion of what constitutes 'pure' Impressionism, that the re-evaluation of the movement in recent years has often left Sisley stranded outside it. This has greatly added to the comparative neglect of his work. He is famous but not known, admired but little studied. Many accounts of Impressionism treat him perfunctorily; assessments run on the comfortable premise that he was a marvellous painter for two or three years but became a victim of his style and collapsed into an irreversible decline. ... While there can be little doubt that the best paintings were made in the 1870s, there are vigorous and beautiful works from the years that followed.
Other reasons exist for Sisley's shadowy reputation. Most obviously, his output appears less substantial and less clearly directed than that of his associates - Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. Their later evolutions, especially those of Monet and Renoir, drew Impressionism into the early twentieth century. Sisley's death at the very end of the nineteenth assumes a symbolic resonance. It signals the dissolution of the kind of Impressionism to which he had devoted his working life. His relatively early death put an end to the unmistakable signs of renewal in his painting of the 1890s: a late flowering, withered almost before it had begun.
Compared with that of his colleagues, Sisley's development was neither complex nor dramatic. The personality his work exudes is reticent and sober, marked, as the American painter Marsden Hartley wrote, by a 'solemn severity'. The influences digested in his early years, both English and French, served their purpose throughout his life. There are, of course, recognizable phases within his work, for Sisley was a highly conscious artist. Yet once the excitement of the Impressionist moment was over, his pace was leisurely and his evolution unforced. It is tempting to attribute this quiet self-effacement to his English origins, through which an innate insularity was transferred to the Ile de France. Several of his forebears, for example, were conspicuous for a plucky adventurousness followed by bourgeois consolidation. The pattern of Sisley's evolution is much the same.
Recent Impressionist studies have been devoted, for the most part, to an investigation of subject matter and iconography - Sisley's work does not readily submit itself to such analysis. There is almost no overt social or political content in his painting, no informative celebration of contemporary people, no agrarian comment or escapist Mediterranean allure. It is true that he was not attracted to aspects of urban life, as found in Renoir, nor to the ideological impulses that inform, for example, much of Pissarro's work. For most of his life Sisley was content to depict the traditional activities of countryside and rural waterways as they impinged on the landscape. In the 1870s, working in all the places whose names recur in the early history of Impressionism - Bougival, Argenteuil, Marty, Louveciennes - Sisley resolutely turned his back on their social life. He concentrated instead on undisturbed or only distantly animated aspects of his surroundings. This has led to an underestimation of those elements of the everyday scene which do, in fact, appear intermittently throughout his painting. There are many moments of private leisure - there are trains, factory chimneys, pleasure boats and barges, a forge, a flood rescue, quayside activities; there are the flags and crowds of regattas on the Thames and of Paris effete at the Point du Jour. None of these should be omitted from an account of Sisley's role within Impressionism viewed in its social context.
No substantial biography of Sisley has yet been written. His life is not well documented and this has furthered his neglect. Although he wrote many letters, few are personally revealing or of exceptional interest. There are no journals or autobiographical writings and he died before celebrity might have sent interviewers and photographers to his door. At the same time, the change in his character from high spirits and sociability to a seemingly misanthropic and suspicious demeanour accounts for the virtual disappearance of his name from the memoirs and letters of several of his early friends. As a result of this profil perdu, the few facts about Sisley's life that have long been taken for granted have not been thoroughly examined. Since the publication in 1959 of Francois Daulte's catalogue raisonne, almost no research has investigated Sisley's life - misstatements and misconceptions abound. Several of these have been corrected...and use has been made of unpublished letters and archival documents. These modify or illuminate at many points the biographical outline of Sisley and set his work in a more palpable context. New material has shaped the narrative and deepened that sense of Sisley as resourceful, proud and solitary. In a passage on the landscapes of Ruisdael, written in 1875, Eugene Fromentin wrote of the Dutch painter as
a dreamer, one of those men of whom many exist in our own day but who were rare in Ruisdael's time - one of those lonely wanderers who flee from the town, frequent the outskirts, who love the country without exaggeration and describe it without phrases, who are made uneasy by distant horizons but are charmed by open country, moved by a shadow and enchanted by a shaft of sunlight.
He goes on to suggest the sombre reasonableness of Ruisdael's melancholy, the product neither of self-indulgent immaturity nor of the fretful self pity of old age. No one familiar with Sisley's painting or his character can fail to be reminded of them by Fromentin's words. They were written in the year when Sisley produced some of his finest paintings, and at the start of one of the most discouraging periods of his life. He was at the height of his powers, superbly endowed with gifts that place his achievements on a level with those of Renoir, Monet and Pissarro. In particular, he faultlessly conveys those startling moments of perception in which a scene is removed from its surroundings, however commonplace, and steeped in an undefinable emotion - the Marly aqueduct, the flooded inn by the Seine, a passer by in the snow, a girl swinging in an orchard, a wave breaking over a rock on the shore. He has the power of transcribing such scenes as though be had been searching for them all along, and yet he reveals them with an air of diffidence that disarms while it captivates. It is at such moments that Sisley enlarges our perception of Impressionist painting and joins the ranks of the great European landscapists.
- From Richard Shone, "Sisley"