Alfred Sisley was a fundamental Impressionist painter. One of the most dedicated artists of painting en plein air, Sisley's career is a testament to the passion for landscape painting. While many of his fellow painters were interested in depicting scenes of urban life, the artist rarely changed his subject throughout his life, dedicating himself to creating pictures of the countryside, buildings, the sea, and the sky.
The Parisian painter Alfred Sisley was born in October 1839. His parents were William Sisley and Felicia Sell. William worked in the silk business while Felicia was a music connoisseur, also helping her husband in his work. William Sisley was a Frenchman, and Felicia was British, which influenced the early contact that her son had with art and culture.
Through his family's education, mostly from his mother, the young painter was first attracted to music. He frequently attended the Pasdeloup orchestra events, and in the correspondence exchanged with Arsène Alexandre, an art critic and journalist, he detailed his passion for Beethoven.
The couple wished that Sisley followed his father's footsteps as a businessman, sending him to study in London at eighteen years old, in 1857. Based on his cultural education, he grew infatuated first with British literature. Then he came in contact with the work of Romantic landscape painters John Constable and J. M. W. Turner and was immediately captivated by painting. In 1860, Sisley returned to his hometown and shared his artistic dreams with his parents, who gave him permission to pursue a career in the field.
Not many of his early studies still exist, but most consisted of landscapes with dark and earthy color pallets, many of which he painted at Saint-Cloud and the royal residence Chateau de Marly. Sisley's later work was also inspired by the Realist artists Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.
In 1862, Sisley began to study under the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre. Gleyre was a celebrated teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts and gave his private classes on the atelier of fellow artist Hippolyte Delaroche. In his course outside the École, he lectured about the fundamentals of Neo-Classical art, but his students didn't have to conform to academic norms. During the period Sisley studied with Gleyre, he met Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir as well.
The group of artists had similar views on the art world. Renoir recalls how Gleyre's classes were packed with posh students that saw art as a fashionable hobby. Shortly, he got close to Fréderic Bazille, who had brought Sisley to the studio, and the three of them went after class for a beer and had heated discussions about art. Monet was the last to join them and was a fine addition to the group.
The friends started to share their artistic ambitions and worries, and while seeing their similarities in intent, they only got closer. Eventually, they broke with the Classic standards of painting landscapes championed by Charles Gleyre and started to paint in Fontainebleau and Barbizon. The practice became known as painting en plein air or pleinairism and was an effective method to the influential Barbizon School.
The students left their master's classes in May 1863. Alfred Sisley became friends with Camille Pissarro, who shortly became part of their group. His tender landscapes started to be influenced by Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny, who were also breaking away from Academic conventions and had a shared interest in the immediate reactions to nature.
The French artist's experience outdoors shaped his art in a significant way. The next three years were characterized by his first serious production. The painters regularly made excursions to Barbizon and Marmotte's regions to paint together.
In 1865, the same year that the Salon des Refusés was created, the four friends discussed the impacts of painting outdoors passionately and reached somewhat of a shared understanding of what direction they wanted to take in their production.
In 1866, Alfred Sisley married Marie-Louise Adélaïde-Eugénie Lescouezec, who worked as a florist. It's possible to see them in Renoir's Portrait of the Couple Sisley, painted a couple of years after their marriage.
His father was enraged with the engagement, probably because of her family's financial hardships, and disowned Sisley from the family. The couple had three children together; two of them, Pierre and Jeanne, can be seen in the picture The Lesson. In the same year, the painter participated in the Paris Salon, which marks his recognition as a professional artist.
The couple moves together to a central apartment in the French capital. Sisley's network starts to grow beyond his usual affiliates. he was seen frequently at the Café Guerbois, in the Batignolles neighborhood and very close to Edouard Manet's apartment. Manet became a leading character in Modern painting and started to organize these cultural meetings with many painters with similar aspirations. The Guerbois became, then, a cultural center for the discussions that birthed Impressionism.
The Sisley family moved to Bougival, a commune north of Paris, at the end of the 1860s. It's possible to see how the village was through the artist's portrayals. Some examples of works produced around the area are Bougival, Factory in the flood, Bougival, Banks of the Seine at Bougival, and Bougival I. Other contemporaries of the artist, like Berthe Morisot, Renoir, and Monet, also made many artworks based on the commune. Until 1870, he kept a studio in Paris, where he worked from time to time. This same year was also marked by how his Impressionistic traits began strongly appearing in his art.
At the beginning of the Prussian settlement in French territory, Alfred Sisley had to leave Bougival for Paris. The painter spent less than a year in the French capital and decided to move to Louveciennes. He rented a house close to where Renoir was living at the time. During the period of the war, one of his earliest paintings was Early Snow at Louveciennes, a place he frequently depicted in the upcoming years.
This period was one of economic struggle for the Sisley family. Even though he wasn't on good terms with his father, he still provided them with financial assistance. The conflict with the Prussians had ruined William Sisley's business, and he died in 1871. While the battle was going on, the painter focused on his pacific landscapes and painted at Louveciennes and Bougival, non-occupied areas.
The painter stayed sometime traveling between England and Paris. After returning to the Voisins village in Louveciennes, he discovered that the Prussians had invaded his atelier and destroyed part of his paintings, which is why only a few of Sisley works before 1870 that survived until today.
From 1870 to 1872, Auguste Renoir proved to be a valuable friend of Sisley. During these years, he frequently traveled to avoid the areas where war was taking place, but he tried to establish his family near Renoir's residence when it was possible. They painted together regularly during this time. At the beginning of 1872, Sisley's luck changed after he met Paul Durand-Ruel, who became the most important art dealer of the 19th century and, for 25 years, bought around 400 works from Sisley.
In 1874, the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs was created. The artists' association was founded by Alfred Sisley Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre Prins. Berthe Morisot later joined the group as well. Since Paul Durand-Ruel was facing financial trouble at the time, Pierre Firmin Martin, another art dealer, became responsible for the group's finances.
The collective was created to oppose the official Salon, which wasn't accepting any Modernist painters in their show. The exception was Edouard Manet, who decided not to adhere to the group so he wouldn't have any grudges with the jury of the Salon. The first event took place at the atelier of photographer Nadar in 1874. The group held other 8 Impressionist exhibitions, in which Sisley participated in 3 of them. After being part of the first Impressionist show with six paintings, Sisley visited London through the financial aid of his patron, Jean-Baptiste Faure. He spent the next five months there, depicting landscapes around Hampton Court.
Sisley goes back to Louveciennes. There he reached one of his artistic peaks with a group of paintings that portray cityscapes covered with snow during the winter season. Even though the artist used a restricted palette, his use of pink, yellow, and blue pigments among his subtle and cold greys and browns is nothing short of brilliant. His manner became more gestural and simplified, and the color more complex. Paintings from this period include Snow at Louveciennes, Road under Snow, near Louveciennes, and La Route de Louveciennes, Hiver, which are among his most famous artworks.
In 1880, he established himself in the house where he lived for the rest of his life, near Moret-sur-Loing. By this time, the original Impressionists weren't working under this label anymore. Each major artist searched for their inclinations, and many solo shows from Impressionist painters happened in the next years.
During this decade, Sisley once again had to deal with monetary issues. He had one solo show in 1881 and another in 1883, hosted by the Durand-Ruel gallery. In 1885, the painter asked for financial aid from Durand-Ruel and trusted him in the organization of two collective exhibitions. The events were successful and granted him some recognition.
The painter started to work with dealer Georges Petit which guaranteed him a steady presence in exhibitions and a new commercial venue. Eventually, a dispute surfaced with Durand-Ruel over his work, and Petit then became his only dealer. He arranged a great retrospective of the painter's work, reuniting 146 paintings and six pastels. The event happened in 1897 and received little attention, causing enormous distress to the painter.
The last years of Alfred Sisley are unfortunate and tragic. He was, more than before, economically ruined and lived in a state of poverty. His naturalization to become a French citizen was denied, and his wife died in 1898. Suffering from throat cancer during his final years, Alfred Sisley passed away on 29th January of 1899 in his house at Moret-sur-Loing.