Édouard Manet

Baudelaire and the Impressionist Revolution

Claude Monet


Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

Portrait of Alfred Sisley by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (ca. 1875)


Alfred Sisley was born in Paris in 1839 to wealthy English parents.  In the early 1860s he studied painting in the studio of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, where he became acquainted with fellow students Frederic Bazille, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Together they came to be known as the "Four Musketeers."  They typically would paint landscapes in the outdoors (en plein air) rather than in a studio, in order to realistically capture the transient effects of sunlight. This approach, innovative at the time, resulted in paintings more colorful and more brightly painted than the contemporary French artistic establishment was accustomed to seeing. Consequently, Sisley and his friends endured much negative criticism and had few opportunities to exhibit or sell their work.

By the late 1860s, he frequented the Café Guerbois and became part of the circle that had gathered around Edouard Manet. During his association with that group, he became influenced by the Ideas that came to be known as Impressionism,  In 1870-1871, during the Franco-Prussian war and the uprising of the Paris Commune, Sisley spent some time in London, where he met the art dealer, Durand-Ruel.  and became part of that dealer's stable of artists. In the meantime, his father had lost all his money as a result of the war, and Sisley, with a family to support, was reduced to a state of poverty, in which he stayed almost until the end of his life.

Sisley now saw himself as a full-time professional painter and an integral part of the Impressionist group. In all, he exhibited at four of the Impressionist Exhibitions, in 1874, 1876, 1877 and 1882. Sisley adopted many of the techniques of Claude Monet. Accordingly, much of Sisley's work during this period resembles that of Monet.  However, Sisley was less of an experimenter than Monet and tended to work on a smaller scale.

Compared to the other Impressionist, Sisley's works were relatively well received by the critics. The writer and art critic, Emile Zola, while evaluating the paintings displayed at the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876,  noted that:

Sisley ... is a very talented landscape painter who commands better balanced means than Pissarro ... His painting ... is made up of wide brush strokes and a delicate coloration.

Note that Zola used two words in evaluating Sisley’s work: "balanced” and "delicate”. These adjectives were frequently used when describing Sisley's paintings.  Indeed, the opinion of most art historians is that Sisley's paintings possesses the lyrical detachment and visual purity equal to that of his great 19th century contemporaries, the Englishman Constable and the Frenchman Corot.

His paintings convey a generic and almost textbook idea of perfect Impressionism.  His depictions of the water and sky are always extraordinarily impressive. His concentration on landscape subjects was the most consistent of any of the Impressionists.  Naturally shy, he did not promote himself in the way that many of his fellow Impressionists did, and it was only towards the end of his life, when he was dying of cancer, that he began to receive the recognition that he deserved.  In 1899, Sisley died in Moret-sur-Loing, France at the age of 59.


Regattas at Moseley (1874)


From July to October of 1874, British expatriate Alfred Sisley painted in England at Hampton Court and East Moseley on the Thames River west of London.  The above painting, Regattas at Moseley, is oil on canvas measuring 92 cm x 66 cm. and was completed in the autumn of 1874. Today it is on display in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

This particular painting was so well liked by Gustave Caillebotte, that he purchased it for his personal collection.  In 1894, the painting became part of the Caillebotte Bequest and was one of the paintings accepted by the French Government.

I believe Regattas at Moseley is a brilliant work of Impressionism because of its unique design, striking contemporary note and rich handling of color. The painting shows the start of a "rowing-eights event" on the Thames River in England, just opposite a hotel on Tagg’s Island (on the right side of the painting). Spectators have gathered on the bank or in launches moored alongside.  Many flags and ensigns are on display, including yachting ensigns, a Union Jack and the black-and-white flag of the Moseley Boat Club (on the extreme left). White-clad officials are in attendance, one of them looking at his watch before the start. The traditional composition of Sisley’s design is countered by the three flags boldly strung across the sky, a spatial device that places the entire composition into sharp relief against a delicate green and violet sky.

The overall arrangement of the pictorial elements is quite remarkable.  Below the conventionally placed horizon line of two-thirds sky and one third land and water, Sisley layers a finely executed design of river, path and bank with a contrasting vertical arrangement of fences, bollards, mooring posts and flag­poles. The foreground is open permitting the depiction of the sandy tow-path in a beautiful peach-ochre color. The overall arrangement causes the eye of the observer to travel backwards to the motion of the boats, stimulated by these artificial demarcations and animated figures. They work on the surface as spatial markers and accents of color; and also act as abbreviated markers for this example of organized sport and leisure. In other words, this painting contains all of the spontaneous elements of a typically British society at ease.


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