Impressionism’s Perfect Moment

Alfred Sisley at the Bruce Museum

Alfred Sisley Impressionist Master
Alfred Sisley, The Seine at Bougival, 1872, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 65.5 cm. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Gift of Henry Johnson Fisher, B.A. 1896 (1962.54). 

In the second half of the nineteenth century, art history, in one of its many benevolent permutations, provided a landscape painter with Corot’s sensibility and Monet’s touch. This brilliant hybrid—Alfred Sisley—has, alone among the original Impressionists, been treated with benign neglect. A primary and much documented reason for this was his ability to synthesize influences, not only those of Corot and Monet, but Constable and Renoir as well, without the ambition to mold his borrowings into an instantly recognizable and trademark-ready product. All artists are hybrids, so to speak, but Sisley sails especially in Monet’s slipstream. Robert Rosenblum echoed more than a century of criticism when he dismissed his work as a “generic” example of the movement, which is like calling George Harrison the quiet Beatle. Kenneth Clark had it right when he pronounced the work Sisley produced during an 1874 trip to England “a perfect moment of Impressionism.”

Scholarship’s way of correcting such oversights is to mount retrospectives and publish catalogues, and this is now being done on Sisley’s behalf. The catch is that Alfred Sisley (1839–1899): Impressionist Master, isn’t hosted by the Met or the National Gallery, but is installed in the Bruce Museum, a modest building on a Greenwich, Connecticut hilltop overlooking I-95. It’s a plum get for the Bruce, and an inexplicable miss for any number of major museums.

Alfred Sisley Impressionist Master
Alfred Sisley, Flood at Port-Marly, 1872, oil on canvas, 46.4 x 61 cm. National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Sisley was the least experimental of the Impressionists, peaking early to mid-career and adhering closely to the movement’s original precepts his entire working life. He was exclusively a plein-air painter, and once he found his rhythm he held fast to it. Sisley was, according to his biographer Richard Shone in the exhibition’s fine catalogue, “one of the first European painters to dedicate himself almost exclusively to pure landscape.” He painted beautifully and helped to create the archetype of the painter working out of doors, responsive to nature and its transitions. At this moment a hundred thousand artists are attempting much the same thing, and none of us are doing it as well. The notion that he ought to have been more innovative needs to be put to rest.

Sisley’s strengths included an ability to render atmosphere; solid draftsmanship; truthfulness of tone; and most importantly, a gentle integrity. The last quality refers to the personal character of the artist, insofar as it’s possible to suss it out based solely on the evidence of the art. Sisley left virtually no autobiographical breadcrumbs, and there’s just one letter by his hand explaining his art. We know that he befriended Monet, Renoir and Bazille in Charles Gleyre’s Paris atelier in the early 1860s. His studio at Bougival was overrun by enemy soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War, and any early work housed therein was destroyed (Camille Pissarro suffered the same crisis at his home in Louveciennes, where his canvases were used as doormats by Prussian soldiers). In later years he decamped to the countryside at some distance from Paris, where he lived in semi-seclusion and at arm’s length from success. Other than some basic familial details, we don’t know much more about him than that.

Alfred Sisley Impressionist Master
Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872, oil on canvas, 49.5 x 65.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson, Jr., 1964 (64.287). 

The Bruce’s show is comprised of some fifty paintings; several dozen are extraordinary. Maybe the most famous is Flood at Port-Marly, one of a series of canvases in which Sisley chronicled the overflow of the Seine. There isn’t a false note in the painting, either in terms of color or understated sentiment; if one missed the title it would be easy to accept the view as commonplace, as if we’ve happened upon some quaint French Venice. In spirit this is as close to Corot as any painter of Sisley’s generation got, which is to say that whether he was painting the movement of trees in the wind, flowing water or scudding clouds, the abiding mood is tranquil. In The Seine at Bougival, the weather is similarly gray. I’ve looked at the painting in reproduction for decades, and been impressed by its silver palette and striking reflections, without ever taking conscious notice of the picture’s stringent geometry. Sisley sliced the view straight down the middle vertically, and again on the horizontal axis. A piece of sky at the far left and the jagged contours of the foreground boats break up the quadrants, and, as always with Sisley, the touch is so flickering that the formality of design is obscured. That calligraphic touch owes a lot to Monet, but there’s a distinctive reserve that one is tempted to ascribe to Sisley’s English heritage.

Even the elation of a perfect day is distilled through an even temperament. The blanching sunlight of The Bridge of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, a high point of Impressionism, is painted with a cool palette. The paint’s tactile quality is evident in the dirt and foliage on the riverbank, the reflections under the bridge and, most notably, in the windswept clouds, where Sisley animated the naturalism of his observations with a measured exuberance. Twenty years later he wrote: “Is there anything more beautiful and more moving than the sky that is so frequently found in summer. I am talking about the blue sky with white, drifting clouds. What movement, what allure, don’t you agree?…I always begin by painting the sky.”

Alfred Sisley Impressionist Master
Alfred Sisley, Under Hampton Court Bridge, 1874, oil on canvas, 50 x 76 cm. Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Donated by Dr. Herbert and Charlotte Wolfer-de-Armas, 1973. © Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft, Zürich, Lutz Hartmann

This could not have been true of at least one painting in the exhibition, Under Hampton Court Bridge. For its dominating symmetry and excision of sky, Under Hampton Court Bridge is nearly anomalous in Sisley’s mature output. Ever the master of atmosphere, here Sisley ceded his subtle strength in favor of vertiginous linear perspective. The painter placed himself directly under the bridge, so that the subject is both the stalwart architectural structure and the landscape glimpsed through multiple windows opened between the bridge’s pylons. His church facades at Moret-sur-Loing of the 1890s, several of which are represented at the Bruce, are neither so oppressive nor so airy. The Hampton Court paintings are those of an artist in his prime, fueled in part by the proximity of his colleagues; by the time Sisley settled in Moret in 1882 he had begun to work in greater isolation. In 1892 he wrote, “I will never really leave this little place that is so picturesque.”

Sisley merits a more impressive venue, but that will wait for another time. Right now Greenwich is host to a perfect moment of Impressionism. 

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899): Impressionist Master is on view at the Bruce Museum through May 21. 

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