Alfred Sisley - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Alfred Sisley
Alfred Sisley was born in Paris, the son of affluent British expatriates. His mother, Felicia Sell, was a music connoisseur, and his father, William Sisley, owned a lucrative business exporting artificial flowers and silk. Felicia and William were cousins, descended from a long line of English smugglers and tradesmen. Alfred was one of four children, one of whom - the eldest brother - died at a young age. Unfortunately, little is known about Alfred's adolescence before he was sent to London in 1857 to study for a career in commerce. While in London, Sisley is said to have spent much of his time visiting the exhibitions of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner at the National Gallery.
Sisley returned to Paris in 1860, where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In Paris, he met the artists Frédéric Bazille, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and James Whistler while studying in Charles Gleyre's (1806-74) atelier. Sisley's academic training focused on "technique and preparation," yet Gleyre was in part responsible for fostering the new, "impressionist" style. Gleyre taught his students to draw from memory and to study nature, while stressing the importance of originality. None of Sisley's student work survives and only a few of his early paintings can be accounted for. It can only be assumed that his work prior to 1870 was destroyed when he fled Bougival following the Prussian invasion. His earliest surviving paintings are reminiscent of those of the Barbizon school, particularly in their interest in color. Good examples of his early work are his three different renditions of Avenue of Chestnut Trees Near La Celle-Saint-Cloud (1867), the last version of which was accepted into the Salon in 1868.
Sisley became close friends with Renoir during their training in Gleyre's studio. Renoir often spoke of his pleasant and charismatic disposition, telling his son that "[Sisley] was a delightful human being...he could never resist a petticoat. We would be walking along the street, talking about the weather or something equally trivial, and suddenly Sisley would disappear. Then I would discover him at his old game of flirting." Among Gleyre's other students he had a "hardworking and gregarious" reputation.
In 1866 Sisley met a florist named Marie-Louise Adelaide Lescouezec (Eugénie). Renoir recalled that she seemed "exceedingly well bred." Her upbringing is uncertain, but one account suggests that her family's financial hardships forced her to become a model. Another account of her early life suggests that her father, an officer, was killed in a duel when she was a young girl. Despite her questionable background, Sisley fell in love with her and remained devoted to her until her death. A year after they met, the couple's son Pierre was born, followed by a daughter, Jeanne, in 1869. After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Sisley's finances became unstable. Sisley had been supported by his father, but his business failed shortly after the outbreak of the war. His father lost everything and passed away shortly thereafter.
Following the death of his father, Sisley dedicated himself to painting, having to depend on his art to support his family financially for the first time. It was around this same time that Sisley's style matured. He began to exhibit his true potential as a colorist, as well as an ability to capture nature through the use of loose brushstrokes. Sisley's paintings from this time represent an impressive range of tones, while his ability to render the complex visual effects of light brings life to his landscapes. According to art historian Christopher Lloyd, Sisley's compositions are meticulously organized "bringing order to a world constantly in flux." Throughout his career, Sisley worked en plein air, painting directly onto a primed canvas, and he rarely ever retouched his compositions in the studio.
While Sisley's dedication to the Impressionist movement never faltered, his failure to sell paintings led him back to exhibiting at the Salon in the 1870's. Although the Salon Jury rejected him in 1867 and 1879, they accepted his paintings later in his career. Since he was unable to exhibit his work in an academic setting, Sisley exhibited his paintings at the first Impressionist show in 1874. The emerging group gathered at the photographer Nadar's studio, where Sisley exhibited five paintings. Louis Leroy, a critic for Charivari, was in attendance and coined the term Impressionism, which was originally used as derogatory term. Leroy called the artists "trouble-makers," who merely painted their impressions of things. Sisley continued to exhibit his work steadily between 1874 and 1890. He exhibited at most of the Impressionist shows, as well as at other art and corporate venues. In 1872 Sisley met Paul Durand-Ruel, a private art dealer who represented him until 1891 when Georges Petit replaced him.
Late Years and Death
Sisley had spent most of his adult life in poverty, often having to request loans for modest sums of money. He and his family relocated along the outskirts of Paris looking for cheaper housing more than a dozen times. While his lack of recognition and dire financial situation caused him emotional distress that led him to avoid social engagements, he managed to remain friendly and well-liked throughout his life.
It was not until late in life (1897) that Sisley married his wife. Marie died of cancer in October of 1898, soon after they returned to France from their wedding in Wales. In January of 1899, Sisley himself was in poor health. He invited his good friend Monet to visit him, and while Monet was there, he asked him to care for his children. Sisley died a week later of throat cancer and was buried at Moret cemetery. A bust was erected in his memory.
In May of 1899 Monet requested that Georges Petit hold an auction at the Hotel Drouot to raise money for Sisley's children. Petit managed to sell twenty-seven of his paintings, raising 112,320 francs. Additionally, Sisley's Flood at Port-Marly (1876) sold in March of 1900 for 43,000 francs, nearly half of the amount of all twenty-seven of his paintings sold the year before. While Sisley did not gain notoriety during his lifetime, many of his contemporaries did recognize his talent. Art critic Wynford Dewhurst said "Rare are the artists who distinguish themselves in every branch of art, lucky the man who excelled in one. An example of the latter is Sisley, 'paysagiste' pure and simple, who has left a legacy of some of the most fascinating landscapes ever painted."
The Legacy of Alfred Sisley
Despite Impressionism's popularity, Sisley received little recognition and success during his lifetime and is still understudied in comparison to his contemporaries. The lack of serious scholarly consideration is often regarded as a result of his fractured national identity. Sisley retained English citizenship through out his life, although he applied for French Citizenship twice and was denied. Still, he was a founding member of French Impressionism, carrying out the movement's original philosophy throughout his career.
Sisley's early work served as a link between the Barbizon school and what later became known as Impressionism. Although he was not directly involved in the Post-Impressionist movement, his innovative use of color and texture to invoke emotion was the cornerstone of the later movement.
Painter and critic Eugène Fromentin considered Sisley as talented as Renoir, Monet and Pissarro, writing, "He faultlessly conveys those startling moments of perception in which a scene is removed from its surroundings and steeped in an indefinable emotion. He has the power of transcribing such scenes as though he had been searching for them all along, and yet he reveals them with an air of diffidence that disarms while it captivates. He enlarges our perception of Impressionist painting and joins the ranks of the great European Landscapists." Indeed, his work speaks for itself, and shows his tremendous talent at suffusing landscapes with life and emotion. His mastery of light and color certainly paved the way forward for later artists working in the genre, such as Paul Cézanne.