25,000 of the greatest lives


Born October 30, 1839, in Paris, France, to English parents. Of the artists who exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, it was Alfred Sisley who was the purest landscape painter. In an oeuvre of almost 900 oil paintings he produced less than a dozen still lifes and only one or two genre scenes. All of his remaining works are landscapes, and throughout his career he favored the same kind of environment whether in the forest of Fontainebleau, in Louveciennes, London, Moret, or Wales. His works tend to be calm with little attention paid to cityscapes or recent industrialization. They are often devoid of people, any figures or staffage in them being used as compositional devices or perhaps narrative elements rather than as a means of representing a humanized landscape.

Le Loing a St. Mammes
© Philadelphia Museum of Art/CORBIS

During his first trip to London, from 1857-61, he discovered the work of the English landscape painters Turner, Constable, and Bonnington, and the influence of England and English art remained strong throughout his career. In this Sisley was not unusual; other members of the Impressionist group such as Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir were looking to recent precedents in their desire for an art which reflected landscape in as naturalistic a way as possible. They deliberately flouted the strict academic precepts of the École des Beaux-Arts, with its emphasis on the historical landscape that derived ultimately from Claude and Poussin, and turned instead to the Barbizon painters. Sisley's landscape at the Salon of 1868, Avenue of Chestnut Trees near La Celle Saint-Cloud (Southampton), demonstrates an acquaintance with the soft tonality of Corot and the dramatic massing of Courbet, both of whom were to remain influential.

At the first Impressionist exhibition, Sisley exhibited six landscapes (only five appeared in the catalogue) with little critical or financial success. His Autumn: Banks of the Seine near Bougival (1873; Montreal) was criticized for being sketch-like and apparently unfinished, a common complaint levelled against other Impressionist painters who adopted an uncomprising stance to painting out of doors with a much freer execution than found in the work of older artists. In this work, Sisley's mature characteristics are evident: an emphasis on the sky to light the picture and create atmosphere and give an indication of time and weather conditions (with which Constable had been concerned). This was emphasized with a clear tonality coupled with judicious use of colour--the autumnal oranges are offset against the blue sky. The seemingly informal composition of the work is constructed with great feeling for space.

An Area of the Woods Near Sablons (1883)
© Edimédia/CORBIS

After the exhibition Sisley returned to England, this time under the patronage of the French baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, from July to October 1874. In London he painted a series of canvases at Hampton Court which are remarkably fresh and spontaneous. Molesey Weir, Hampton Court (1874; Edinburgh) is compositionally daring with the posts of the weir creating a system of rigid verticals which holds the picture together and leads the viewer's eye into the picture space in no less a contrived way than Poussin might have done. Yet it appears relaxed and informal with thick white impasto, and the figures of the naked bathers are executed with great economy of means.

Sisley exhibited at the second and third Impressionists exhibitions but met with little critical acclaim until he received a mention in Georges Rivière's L'Impressioniste, which was sympathetic to the Impressionist cause. He wrote of Sisley's charming talent, his taste, subtlety, and tranquillity. It is in these terms that present-day reviewers regard Sisley. Unlike Monet or Renoir he did not confront urban life in his landscapes, and his view of nature was not shaped by anarchist politics like Pissarro's. Instead he painted a timeless yet unsentimental view of nature in which man, although present, is never the controlling force.

Sisley died on January 29, 1899 of throat cancer.

Biography Resource Center © 2001 Gale Group

Related Links
Slideshow of Alfred Sisley's paintings

Alfred Sisley online resources