Rediscovering Sisley


Near the end of his life, the French painter Camille Pissarro was asked by the young Matisse to define "impressionism."

The old man thought for a moment before replying: "An impressionist is a painter who never paints the same picture, who always paints a new picture." When Matisse pressed the master to name a typical impressionist, Pissarro responded with a single name: "Sisley."

Pissarro considered the Anglo-French artist Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) one of the greatest innovators of the pioneering group of artists who revolutionized French painting in the mid-19th century.

It was a group that included such illustrious names as Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Degas. Yet for nearly a century after his death, Sisley's contribution to the school known as Impressionism was virtually ignored by the art world.

Now a major new retrospective of Sisley's oeuvre at Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery promises to spark a long-overdue critical reappraisal of this neglected master. The show, which opens March 14, brings together more than 60 of the artist's most luminous landscapes and still lifes in a stunningly beautiful exhibition guaranteed to delight museum-goers of all ages.

Perhaps Pissarro could appreciate the irony of Sisley's obscurity, since he, too, had suffered a similar fate at the hands of critics. But Pissarro ultimately lived to see his reputation firmly established as one of the seminal figures of the impressionist movement. Sisley, by contrast, died largely unknown and in bitter poverty. Until recently, his life and work were relegated to the status of historical footnotes in the history of 19th century French painting.

The son of affluent English parents, Sisley was born and educated in Paris, where his father managed a thriving business. In 1857, having completed his secondary schooling in France, the future artist was sent to London to enroll in a commercial course intended to prepare him to take over the family business on his father's retirement.

Whether due to the influence of the British and Dutch landscape painters he discovered during visits to London's National Gallery, or whether driven simply by the promptings of his own innate artistic temperament, Sisley returned to Paris in 1860 determined to make a career as a painter.

As a young gentleman of means, Sisley had little difficulty in persuading his father to allow him to enroll as a student in the Paris studio of Charles Gleyre. Gleyre was a Swiss emigre whose symbolist works had created a stir in the art world some years earlier and whose pupils included Renoir, Monet and the American painter and etcher James McNeil Whistler.

For the next three years, Sisley remained under Gleyre's tutelage, absorbing the techniques of the established academic style of painting while finding fresh encouragement in his teacher's stress on developing his own artistic personality and unique mode of expression.

In 1864, Gleyre closed his studio and for the next several years Sisley pursued the life of a gentleman artist in Paris, rooming for a time with Renoir in a studio on the Avenue Neuilly near Porte Maillot.

This carefree idyll came to an abrupt end in 1870, when the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war wiped out the Sisley family business and obliged the young painter for the first time to earn a living from his pallette and brushes.

By then he had two children by his common-law wife, Eugenie Lescouezec, and their desperate situation forced a move to a village outside Paris where living costs were cheaper. For the rest of his life Sisley would be haunted by financial hardship and growing disillusionment as he watched his friends' reputations soar while his own work remained virtually unknown.

Yet the travails that afflicted Sisley's personal life never intruded into his beloved landscapes, which one critic described as expressing only "the smiling mood of nature." Sisley went on to paint hundreds of scenes of the French countryside with a rich pallette whose colors captured the evanescent effects of sunlight on water and the joyful abundance of the land under brilliant, cloud-bedecked skies.

Sisley once declared: "To give life to the work of art is certainly one of the most necessary tasks of the true artist. Everything must serve this end: form, color, surface." The evidence of his success may be seen at the Walters in a show that, like the artist's own aspiration for his work, is as lovely as it is profound.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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