Alfred Sisley: A true Impressionist

Alfred Sisley, Spring, Peasant Under Trees in Blossom, 1865-66; Galerie Bailly, Geneva; image courtesy of Galerie Bailly, Geneva. On public exhibit for the first time.

Alfred Sisley, Spring, Peasant Under Trees in Blossom, 1865-66; Galerie Bailly, Geneva; image courtesy of Galerie Bailly, Geneva. On public exhibit for the first time.

“Sisley was first and foremost a painter of light. He knew how to imbue all of his paintings with it. One could say that light floods his landscapes, deliciously bathing even the most modest of details.” — Anonymous, Echo de Paris, Le Gaulois 1899.

The Bruce Museum has a must-see for those who love Impressionist landscapes: A new exhibit of Alfred Sisley’s work opened Jan. 21 and will be on view through May 21 at the Greenwich museum.

Curated by Sisley scholar MaryAnne Stevens, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899): Impressionist Master includes about 50 of the best examples of his work, some of which have never been publicly exhibited before, tracing a career that was remarkable in several ways. He was born in Paris of English parents and was meant to be a businessman, yet as a young man he turned to art. While never achieving the renown of a Renoir or a Monet or a Pisarro (all friends and occasional studio mates), Sisley was the painter who hewed closest to the original Impressionist ideal throughout his career, Stevens said. He always painted his landscapes from life, which meant that when the weather was bad he could not work, or suffered in the elements to capture a scene “in the moment.” Yet he created more than 900 paintings during his career, driven in part by financial pressures. (Stevens said the volume of his output resulted in a real unevenness in the quality of his work.)

He was an original part of the group that became known as the Impressionists, working and studying with them, exhibiting at the Salon. Landscapes were his focus and he rarely deviated from that. In a preview of the exhibit, Stevens suggested that Sisley’s approach may have been influenced as well by the great English landscape artists J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, whose work he likely saw on several visits to England.

Alfred Sisley, The Flood at Port Marly, 1876; Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; © Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. Sisley painted scene several times; here he shows flood waters receding under one of his typically expansive skies.

Alfred Sisley, The Flood at Port Marly, 1876; Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; © Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. Sisley painted this scene several times; here he shows flood waters receding under one of his typically expansive skies.

One aspect of his work that sets Sisley apart, Stevens said, was his habit of creating panoramic views of a location over a series of paintings, in a variety of seasons and weather conditions, often over a number of years. The Bruce Museum exhibit is organized mostly chronologically with sets of landscapes that together give a full view of a given place.

For example, there are the paintings made in Moret-sur-Loing, where Sisley spent the last 10 years of his life. His painting Banks of the Loing, 1885, offers a long view of the village; in The Bridge at Moret, 1888, we see the old bridge with its watermills and the town beyond; another painting, The Bridge at Moret — Morning, 1891, reveals more of the bridge’s structure; while Moret-sur-Loing (The Porte de Bourgogne), 1891, turns the view again more to the town. Evening in Moret — Late October, 1888, turns even further from the bridge to the riverside.

In her essay for the exhibition catalog, Stevens quotes Thadée Natanson, founder of La Revue Blanche: “M. Sisley appears to be a rather limited but charming landscape artist … we must do him the justice of saying that he holds his place agreeably among his contemporary landscape painters.”

Sisley is known for his ability to capture the ever-changing sky and the sparkle of moving water and for his true Impressionist palette that enabled him to render light in its ever-changing effects on the landscape. He was particularly known for his ability to paint snow, finding the colors that filled the shadows and knowing how to paint both a crisp, bright winter scene as well as a typically French landscape of mist and cloud.

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899): Impressionist Master is the first major retrospective of his work in more than 20 years and the Bruce Museum is its only United States venue. It will travel to France to be on exhibit at the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence from June through October 2017. Organized by the Bruce Museum, the show is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Editions Hazan, with essays by MaryAnne Stevens, who was also curator of 1992/3 and 2002/3 retrospective exhibitions on the artist, and Richard Shone, who wrote a book on Sisley.

Special events

The Monday Morning Lecture Series at the Bruce, which is free, will begin Feb. 6 with Dr. Susan Strauber of Grinnell College offering a survey of Impressionism; on Feb. 13, Alison Hokanson, assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will talk about works by Sisley at the Met; on Feb. 27, Laura Dickey Corey, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU, will talk about Mary Cassatt’s continuing ties to the United States even though she had taken up permanent residence in France; and on March 6, Heidi Hirschl, curatorial assistant at MoMA, will talk about her work on the recent exhibition, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty.

The Bruce Museum’s annual Graduate Student Symposium and Young Scholar Day on Sunday, March 5, 1 to 4 p.m. will be on the theme Framing Nature. Students will present interdisciplinary papers that engage the multifaceted ways that artists and architects frame nature in their work. Advance registration is suggested ($10 admission); at the door, admission will be $20.

The Bruce Museum is at One Museum Drive in Greenwich and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 to 5. For more information, visit brucemuseum.org or call 203-869-0376.

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