Alfred Sisley was an Anglo-French Impressionist who championed the En Plein Air ethos and remained dedicated to landscape painting throughout his life. He was the most prolific of the Impressionists, producing over 900 oils and 100 pastel drawings in his lifetime.
Sisley was born in Paris in October 1839 to wealthy British parents whose Kentish ancestry has been traced back to smugglers operating around the English Channel. His father, William Sisley, was a legitimate silk merchant, exporting artificial flowers and luxury goods to South America; his mother, Felicia, was a connoisseur of music and art and well-known in high society. Sisley was the youngest of four children, and the only one to be born in France. He grew up in the 10th Arrondissement, and the subjects of his later paintings can be identified in and around that district.
At 17, he was sent to live with relatives in London to improve his language skills. His father expected him to study business, but the art of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner appealed more to Sisley than trading. He returned to Paris in 1860, resolute to eke out a living as a painter.
His formal education began at the Ecole des Beaux Arts within the atelier of Swiss artist Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre, who had no more than 40 students a year. Serendipity determined that Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Frederic Bazille were among those 40. And all four were part of the intelligentsia that made Café Guerbois at Avenue de Clichy their second home.
They began experimenting with the idea of en plein air, a technique that would require the artist to be outdoors in order to capture the minute subtleties of sunlight upon a surface. A pioneering method at that time, en plein air resulted in paintings more nuanced in color than the public was used to and the Salon often rejected their work. The Impressionists continued developing their form despite little critical or financial success. They supported Baudelaire’s idea that the artist be aesthetically and culturally embroiled in “modern life.”
The Franco-Prussian War
In 1866, while painting on the coast of Normandy with Renoir, Sisley learned of his mother’s death. It was an unsettling time for the young artist, as he had recently fallen in love with Marie Lescouezec, a floral designer who lived in the 17th Arrondissement in northwest Paris. The couple began living together the following year and had a son, Pierre, later that year. William Sisley looked upon his son’s illegitimate family with considerable distaste and terminated all financial assistance and communication for a time.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 proved a difficult time for Sisley. Bazille’s death at a skirmish at Beaune-la-Rolande fractured some part of the natural development of the Impressionists. While the loss of his friend and colleague was still raw, the Prussian Army seized his living quarters in Bougival, and the subsequent bombing of Parisian suburbs destroyed whatever work he had in residence.
Meanwhile, his father’s company disintegrated under the pressures of war and the family fortunes were lost. William Sisley died in 1871, leaving his son to support himself and his family on the meager income of a working artist. Fortunately, Monet introduced Sisley to a sympathetic art dealer named Durand-Ruel in 1872 and he was assured an adequate number of sales through viewings on Rue Lafitte in Paris and New Bond Street in London.
But the atmosphere of postwar Paris did not foster hope for financial success. The smattering of exhibitions through the 1970s did more for Sisley’s reputation than his bankbook. By the early 1880s, he found himself relinquishing the rights of many of his paintings to Durand-Ruel in exchange for steady monetary imbursement. Durand-Ruel, like other canny art dealers, was educating himself on the growing American market of collectors. In 1886, he organized an exhibition at the American Art Galleries in New York titled “Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris.” The show was a moderate success and in 1891, Durand-Ruel exhibited 28 paintings by Sisley in a solo show.
Marriage and Death
After a successful show at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1897, Sisley and his family traveled to England for three months. He spent time in Cornwall and Wales, painting the stormy coastline, before arriving in Cardiff, where he married his partner of 31 years, Marie.
Sisley died of throat cancer in January 1899, three months after the death of his wife. Four months later, the Galerie Georges Petit assembled a show of his works and a benefit for his two children was organized.
Date of Birth: October 30, 1839
Date of Death: January 29, 1899
Place of Birth: Paris, France
Education: Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts.
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