Sisley reconsidered


The critic Wynford Dewhurst once remarked, "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 . . . who has left a legacy of some of the most fascinating landscapes ever painted." Dewhurst was referring to Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), one of the neglected masters of Impressionism, whose luminous paintings go on display Sunday in a stunning new show at the Walters Art Gallery.

Stories of gifted artists who struggle against impossible odds of poverty and public indifference during their lives only to be recognized as great masters after their deaths have long been the stuff of sentimental novels and movies.

Sisley, however, actually lived the tragedy of such a life. A friend of such innovators as Renoir, Monet and Pissarro, he never achieved recognition comparable to theirs, and for nearly a century after his death his contribution to the revolution in 19th century French painting was regarded by critics as little more than a historical footnote.

The Walters show, mounted in cooperation with the British Royal Academy of the Arts in London and France's Musee d'Orsay in Paris, marks the first large-scale effort to re-evaluate Sisley's place as a pioneering figure of the Impressionist movement. Comprising 65 of the artist's landscapes and still lifes, it will be the only appearance of this important exhibition in the United States.

Unlike his more famous counterparts, Sisley devoted almost his entire career to a single genre, that of landscape. Most of his best known works were painted in and around the small villages that dotted the French countryside near Paris.

Sisley captured the simple subjects he found there -- mills, ponds, curving country roads and placid fields -- with a light-drenched pallette that made his exquisite renderings of land, water and sky visual metaphors for the changing moods of the human heart.

The Walters show represents the first major international retrospective of Sisley's work in nearly a century. The museum staff has designed a new gallery to show off the paintings to best advantage. Visitors can also enjoy an excellent recorded walking tour to guide them through the various stages of Sisley's artistic and personal development.

Museum officials expect some 100,000 people to visit the show during its three-month run. Given the care lavished on every aspect of this landmark exhibit, they won't come away disappointed.

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