Sunday, August 13, 2006

Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley
Along with Gustav Caillebotte Alfred Sisley is one of my two favorite “ignored” Impressionists.

Sisley is usually lost in the glare surrounding Monet, the “star” of Impressionism, particularly since Sisley’s work at its most “Impressionistic” resembles a slightly anemic version of Monet’s prismatic marvels.

Often referred to as “the English Impressionist” Sisley was actually born in Paris of English parents. He became friends with Monet, Renoir and Bazille as a student in the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. With them, Sisley was one of the founding members of the Impressionist movement and is sometimes referred to as a “typical” impressionist.

This attitude, along with a lack of substantial biographical information and the overwhelming presence of Monet and other Impressionist painters with more distinctive styles, has long pushed Sisley into the background.

What I find most appealing about Sisley, however, can be found in his paintings that live somewhere on the realist side of full-blown Impressionist technique, painted honestly and directly with more of an eye to the color and light of the scene than to the abstract notions of purity of color and optical mixing of hues. The result is a fresh, painterly approach in which the feeling of light and color are more important than technique.

His palette is also likely to be more subdued than Monet at his most explosive, preferring a more naturalistic harmony of color. Although very influenced by his Impressionist compatriots, Sisley considered himself a student of Corot and also showed the influence of Courbet and even Constable.

He was fascintated with the effects of light and shadow and the process of capturing them by plein air painting. Sisley, even more than the other Impressionists, was a painter of water. His canvasses were often divided into horizontal bands of sky, land and water, as in the examples above.

I have occasionally seen his work referred to as “cold” or “reserved” but I’ve never felt that. I’ve always thought of his paintings of the French countryside and, in particular, the River Seine, the Thames in London and other streams, as quiet and contemplative, without the splashy drama of Monet or Renoir.

Compared to the more prominent Impressionists, there are few books available on Sisley, representative of the general tendency to ignore him on the way to cashing in on the most popular names. This catalog from a 1992 retrospective is out of print, but nice if you can find a copy. Richard Shone’s scholarly study, Sisley, is probably the most widely available book, and has nice reproductions as well. If you’re lucky, you might find Janice Anderson’s little hardback Life and Works of Sisley on a chain store discount shelf for $3.

The good news is that seeing a real Sisley in person is relatively easy. His paintings can be found in collections and Museums throughout the US and Europe. There is a listing to start with on the Artcyclopedia site. I’m delighted to say there are at least 6 here in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (although only 2 or 3 are likely to be on display at any one time).

The tendency to ignore Sisley when thinking of Impressionist painting is sad, particularly as a parallel to the difficulties he faced later in his life and career. To me he is a hidden gem, a treasure waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

Spend some quiet time with Sisley’s subtle masterpieces and you may agree.

10 thoughts on “Alfred Sisley

  1. Robert Chunn

    I fully agree with your sentiments on Sisley. It’s hard to believe someone so talented could be slighted for so long. It’s understandable that Monet would be crowned the leader of the group. He was its driving force, pushing the others to work harder and not give up. But, how the heck did Renoir make it to second banana? I’d take a Sisley over a Renoir any day.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    Robert,

    I like Renoir at times, but I’ve seen too many boring and lackluster Renoirs to be very enthusiastic about him. (The Barnes Foundation here in Philadelphia has a surprising number of boring Renoirs.)

    Sisley, on the other hand, can capture my attention time and again with his quiet but astonishingly perceptive eye.

    Other readers should check out Robert Chun’s Alla Prima Painting blog, which happens to be on my list for a future post on “not quite painting a day” sites, as well as his drawing blog, Freehand.

  3. Charley Parker Post author

    Peter,

    Thanks for your comments. Obviously, I agree.

    Other readers should check out Peter Yesis’ blog Daily Painting Practice, which is also on my list for the “not quite painting a day” post. It often includes photos of his work in several stages of finish.

    Peter also has a gallery site, although it seems to be hampered by some kind of page load limit that makes it difficult to view the entire gallery.

  4. suncage

    Thank you for this, I do agree, and have spent some time in front of his sketches and was moved by the spontenaity of the pieces. You have put into words some of my experiences while doing this.

    Cheers

    Suncage

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>