France • 1839−1899

Biography and information

Biography and information

Alfred Sisley (30 October 1839, Paris – 29 January 1899, Moret-sur-Loing) was a French impressionist artist with British citizenship, who had come a long way of misunderstanding and rejection, and tragically died less than a few years before recognition of impressionism and his art.

Peculiarities of the artist Alfred Sisley: he is called the most consistent and loyal impressionist of all the French founders of this art movement. Once in his youth, Sisley has determined the basic artistic principles and remained faithful to them until the end of his life. He did not play games with a deformation of space and a violation of perspective, he did not solve the dilemma of drawing-and-color, he did not seek new decorative effects. His landscapes are an exceptionally accurate view of the world.

Famous paintings of Alfred Sisley: “Flood at Port-Marly”, “Snow at Louveciennes”, “Church in Moret”, “Le Chemin de la Machine, Louveciennes”,Bridge at Hampton Court”.

Alfred Sisley participated in every fateful story associated with the birth of impressionism. He met young Monet, Renoir and Bazille in the atelier of Swiss artist Gleyre, where each of them came to study. He traveled with his friends to the forest of Fontainebleau en plein air, participated in the first exhibitions of the Impressionists. But in an amazing and inexplicable way, in every such significant historical picture, Sisley is always out of focus. The invisible man, who BBC directors forget when they make the film “Impressionists”, art historians recall only by the centenary of his death, a real retrospective of his artworks first took place only in 1992.

Modern researchers explain this injustice by Sisley’s stubborn fidelity to once and for all found artistic truth and they return the artist to his place in the history of impressionism.

Paris and London

Alfred Sisley was to become a successful and wealthy merchant - a clear and reliable future was prepared for him by several generations of the Sisley family, which owned the warehouses on one side of the English Channel, the warehouses on the other one, well-established commercial schemes and beaten paths between England and France. Alfred’s father managed the French part of the enterprise, but he sent his 18-year-old son to learn to trade properly to their relatives in London.

Pious fathers traditionally see dangers for their mature sons in bars and houses of tolerance, but rarely suggest that the National Gallery may violate their educational plans. Turner and Constable turned young Sisley head more than any whiskey or young beauty. In London, Alfred quickly realized what kind of future he wanted - he decided to be an artist.

Sisley goes straight from London to Gleyre's workshop. Father sighs and frowns, but takes Alfred's decision and assigns him sufficient maintenance. Unlike student friends Monet, Renoir and Bazille, Sisley was almost always well fed. Exactly until the moment when he met a charming flower girl Eugénie Lesouezec.

Love and poverty

As soon as Alfred realized that she was exactly the woman he wanted to live his life with, and their first child was born, Sisley's father decided that his son did really outrageous things. As a punishment, he denied him of his maintenance. The most difficult time began for the artist, and it would last until the end of his life. Those would be thirty hungry, difficult, and desperate years.

All these years, Alfred and his family ( a second child was born soon) rented small cheap houses in the suburbs of Paris. First, they stayed closer to the capital, then they moved further and further away. Sisley rarely had a cityscape; Sisley had never had his own home. When other Impressionists searching for artistic truth indicates different periods of creativity, Sisley searched for a new home and new subjects next to it. Those were Port-Marly, Louveciennes, Moret instead of being carried away by pointillism or vision of the irregular perspective.

In 1874, when the first exhibition of the artists who would be later called the Impressionists opened, Sisley had already been an accomplished painter. Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro had already introduced him to the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who was trying his best to support the artist. But his paintings were not for sale, inexplicably and hopelessly. In order to prevent the Sisley family from starving to death, Durand-Ruel payed the artist a small amount in exchange for several paintings a month; his loyal collector friends sometimes bought his pictures for 50-100 francs, and no one gave more than 30 francs for Sisley’s paintings auctioned at the Hôtel Drouot. One Parisian pastry chef fed Sisley for free.

Despair and disease

“A charming person, he could not resist the sight of a woman”, Renoir said with a smile. “Even during the periods of greatest need, he retained this English scrupulousness, expressed in caring for a suit and impeccably white collars”, recalled artist’s friend Julien Leclercq. One day, in conversation with the old Impressionist Pissarro, a young painter, Henri Matisse, asked him what it meant to be an Impressionist. Pissarro answered that an Impressionist was one who painted a new painting every time, and Sisley was a typical impressionist. Gentle and shy, educated and balanced, light and knightly noble, "bright as a finch", in the last few years of his life Alfred became closed, suspicious and unpredictable.

When the long-awaited fame comes to his friends, failures continue to pursue Sisley. During a personal exhibition, organized in the gallery of Georges Petit in 1897, none of the 150 paintings by Alfred Sisley was sold. For a year Claude Monet was looking for someone among the patrons of art, who would agree to pay Alfred 500 francs in exchange for 30 paintings - it was in vain.

The artist died of throat cancer, a few months after his wife’s death. Just in one year his 1876 painting "The Flood at Port-Marly"will be purchased by Isaac de Camondo for 43 000 francs. It was more than Sisley had earned in his entire life.

Author: Anna Sidelnykova