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En plein air: Sisley, the Impressionist

A la lisière de la forêt. Copyright Les Sablons Collection Particulière The new exhibition — Sisley, l’Impressionniste — at the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence provides sixty canvases by the artist for our consideration. This is the first exhibition dedicated to the artist in France since 2002 and the works have been carefully chosen by independent curator and expert Maryanne Stevens. What makes this exhibition particularly interesting is that the pictures have been brought together from all over the world, including many pieces from private collections that are previously unseen.

This is a substantial exhibition, providing clear insight not only into the artistic development of Sisley, but also his relationship with Impressionism. The display firmly establishes Sisley’s faithful adherence to the ideals of this movement, long after other members of the group had moved on.

Although Impressionism is one of the best-known periods in art history, the Impressionist movement only officially lasted 13 years, starting in 1873. The term Impressionist was given to this radical break away movement by Louis Leroy, a critic for Le Charivari. It is believed to be inspired by Leroy’s harsh comments on Claude Monet's painting Sunrise (1873) when the critic stated that ‘the picture only gave an impression of an art work’. Was it with a quiet satisfaction that, by 1877, the group adopted the name and went on to become one of the most important artistic movements in history, long after the name Leroy has been forgotten?

Alfred Sisley, the Impressionist in question at this exhibition, appears to be one of those slightly mysterious international figures from the 19th century, a little like Henry James or Whistler. He was a Francophile, but he was not French, a stateless artistic soul.

Born in 1839 to wealthy English parents in Paris, he was sent to England aged 19 to begin his commercial training. Sisley returned four years later, uttering the single phrase that no parent of their status ever wanted to hear: he was enrolled to study painting with Charles Gleyre in 1862. Fortunately for us, he made that difficult decision, and luckily for him, he joined a studio where Renoir, Monet and Bazille — founders of the Impressionist movement — were to be found.

Through Maryanne Stevens’ selection, we are able to observe how Sisley became an Impressionist. Originally influenced by Corot and Courbet, Sisley painted well-known scenes of the Seine Basin, an area described by the curator as the ‘theatre of Impressionism’. At this stage, Sisley's work echoes that of his better-known contemporaries, Monet and Renoir. 

L'innondation à Port Marly (1872). Copyright Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington Painting by painting, we are able to observe how Sisley's palette and composition changed. He is influenced by Pissarro; slowly, his brush work becomes looser, his palette slowly changes; he embraces the soft pinks and mauves of Monet. What remains consistent and unique is Sisley’s love of nature, especially in his depiction of water and sky. In 1874, just after the first Impressionist exhibition, Sisley travelled to London. Jean-Baptiste Faure, the celebrated baritone, acted as patron and the artist painted in the area close to Hampton Court, producing fourteen canvases. Art historian Kenneth Clark has described these pictures as ‘the perfect moment of Impressionism’.

Returning to France, Sisley remained true the movement, working en plein air, observing nature. He rarely painted figures, focusing on the sky and the reflections of the sky in the water, living humbly. After the financial disaster of the Franco-Prussian war, Sislely moved with his family to the west of Paris, resisting the urge to infuse his work with drama or stray too far from what he saw. His compositional devices are certainly worth looking out for, each work usually employs some kind of pathway or route for the spectators eye, whether it's a path or a river to follow.

In a final twist, one of the most beautiful works in the show is the a painting of Penarth, a town close to Cardiff in South Wales. Sisley travelled to the Welsh capital in 1897, during a time in which he married his long-term partner Eugénie Lesouezec, the mother of his two children. This romance-filled work is rose-tinted and glorious. It is certainly one of the exhibition’s highlights.

Until 15th October.


Sarah Hyde