Past Masters Study: Sisley

Past Master Study: Alfred Sisley

My first introduction to Alfred Sisley was presented at the Dayton Art Institute during a traveling exhibition of impressionism.  I’ll be the first to admit, the reason I went to this exhibition was to see Monet’s paintings.  It was very early in my art study, and as I have stated many times, my introduction to impressionism, like most, was Claude Monet.  At this exhibition, the discovery of Sisley was a true gem.

Alfred Sisley was born in 1839 to William Sisley and Felicia Sell.  William was in the silk business, and Felicia was a cultivated music connoisseur. At the age of 18, Alfred was sent to London to study for a business career. However, after four years, he abandoned this path to become an artist.  In 1862 he studied at the atelier of Swiss artist Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, where he became acquainted with Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. In the beginning, the concept of painting en plein air did not provide much opportunity or payment, as their work was consistently rejected from the Salon.  However, Alfred was better off than most of his painter friends, as his father paid him an allowance.

In 1866, Sisley began a relationship with Eugenie Lesouezec, which produced two children. Alfred and Eugenie remained in this relationship until their deaths. In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War put an end to his father’s business and thus, put an end to Sisley’s allowance. Therefore, from 1870 on, Sisley had to rely on the income from his painting to support his family. Occasionally, however, Sisley would be backed by his patrons. Their support allowed him to make a few brief trips to England. The first of these occurred in 1874 after the first independent Impressionist exhibition. During this time in London, Sisley produced 20 paintings of the Upper Thames and Molesey. Art historian Kenneth Clark has described this collection of 20 paintings as “a perfect moment of Impressionism.”

Most interesting is that Sisley never felt the need to move away from painting the landscape. He never painted figures. Always in the shadow of the likes of Monet and Renoir, it is Sisley that most historians consider as having an “almost a generic character, an impersonal textbook idea of a perfect Impressionist painting.” His work strongly invokes atmosphere, and his skies are always very impressive. His concentration on landscape subjects was the most consistent of any of the Impressionists.

In 1898, he applied and refused French citizenship; a second application was made and supported by a police report. However, illness intervened. Sisley remained English till his death. Alfred Sisley died in Moret-sur-Loing at the age of 59, just a few months after the death of his wife.

Alfred Sisley’s Work
We will examine 3 of Sisley’s works from his famous Poplar trees series. “The Lane of Poplars at Moret” has been stolen from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice 3 times, once in 1978 when on loan in Marseille and recovered a few days later in the city’s sewers. In 1998, the museum’s curator stole the painting: resulting in a conviction of theft and a five-year jail sentence for the curator and his two accomplishes. Most recently, the painting was stolen in August 2007.  The French National Police recovered it and three other stolen artworks from inside a van in Marseilles on June 4, 2008.

There are many of these paintings for us to study, each with interesting aspects that lends credence to the point that Alfred Sisley was a student and master of en plein air painting throughout his career.

The first “The Lane of Poplars at Moret” has “on a Cloudy Day” added to its title. 

When compared to the painting below, you can see the difference in his color relationships. Above, the cloudiness presents a closeness of the values. The clouds in the sky give a unified color harmony. The darkest darks at the base of the trees on the right draws you into the painting. All the shapes are carefully defined, but none calls for more attention than the other, as would be expected on a cloudy day. Notice the value of the trees above the buildings on the left. They are the same value as the buildings, separated by interesting shapes of sky value and a hint of the red roof color to tie the two distinct forms together. This area is an excellent example of the use of color temperature versus value changes.  The painting still portrays what seems to be a warm day despite the cloudiness.  It is not a gray cloudy day.

The next two paintings are sunny portrayals of “The Lane of Poplars at Moret.”   Here in the black and white, you can see that the light is coming from the right and study the line of buildings with its shadow and light pattern, providing clues.  Some of the trees above are in the light, and the two almost off the canvas are in shadow, like the buildings below.  The darkest dark again leads us down the pathway between the trees. The dark represents the shadow side of the poplars.  Sisley baths the path in dappled light, in the trees, and on the trunks of poplars on the left side. The fewest clouds in the sky lend themselves to providing an interesting contrast between light and shadow and are not done heavy-handedly. There is so much for the eye to enjoy and explore here. Sisley does a great job of capturing the viewer and keeping them in his painting. Enjoy the shadow pattern on the trunk of the first popular on the left side of the path. Examine the reflective light delicately painted on the trunks of the poplars in shadow. Take time to study how many values he used and the design of those values (both shape and placement).  Examine the color choices he makes within the values. The light at the end of the path that draws your eyes in placed in a way that gently pulls you in slowly so as not to miss the luscious texture and broken colors on our journey down the path.

I included this “The Lane of Poplars of Moret” because it felt more like the evening based on the different color choices Sisley made. The blues and purples are luscious, full of color (not dull or gray), and their coolness is told in the color choices and balanced with the yellow-orange of the sunlit buildings and the yellow touches on the leaves—a great study of color relationships with balancing complements without hitting us over the head with it. Look at the black and white value study, and even without color, the sense of evening light is portrayed so strongly. Again the darkest dark leads us down the path. Study the three placements of the darkest dark and how Sisley used this to direct the viewer’s eye. His use of contrast in this painting is superb, giving this painting the snap and pop. The compositions, layout of the value/shadow pattern, and placement of the contrasts/choice of colors would draw any viewer from across the room to examine this painting more closely. After arriving, the viewer is not disappointed but rewarded with so many things to explore.


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