Alfred Sisley: Colouring landscapes by emotions

Alfred Sisley was born in Paris on 30 October 1839 to English parents. He spent five years in England from 1857 to 1861, and in the country of Shakespeare he felt himself to be English for the first time. He studied English literature, but was even more interested in England’s great master painters. It was most likely in this way – through exposure to the free brushwork of Turner, and Constable’s landscapes, which resembled preparatory studies – that Sisley sensed he had a vocation for the genre.

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Alfred Sisley, The Church at Moret in the Rain, 1894. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham.

In October 1862 fate brought him to Charles Gleyre’s free studio, where Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Frédéric Bazille had come to study. It was Sisley who had encouraged his friends to give up their apprenticeship at Gleyre’s studio and go out to paint from nature. He was outraged, far more so than his friends, at Gleyre’s arrogant
attitude towards landscapes.

From the beginning, landscape for Sisley was not just an essential pictorial genre; it was the one and only genre in which he was to work his entire life. After leaving Gleyre, Sisley often painted together with Monet, Renoir, and Bazille in the environs of Paris.

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Alfred Sisley, The Church at Moret: Evening, 1894. Oil on canvas, 101 x 82 cm. Petit Palais – Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris.

From 1870 the first characteristics of the style that later became Impressionism began to appear in Sisley’s painting. From this point forward the colour scheme in Sisley’s paintings becomes distinctly lighter. This new technique creates an impression of vibrating water, of brightly coloured shimmering on its surface, and of a crisp clarity in the atmosphere. Light, in Sisley’s paintings, was born.

Over the course of the four years he lived in Louveciennes, Sisley painted numerous landscapes of the banks of the Seine. He discovered Argenteuil and the little town of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, which in his work would remain the very image of silence and tranquillity; a world that civilisation and industry had not yet disfigured. He was not, in contrast to Pissarro, searching for prosaic accuracy. His landscapes were always coloured by his emotional attitude towards them. As with Monet, Sisley’s bridges are set in the countryside in a completely natural way. A serene blue sky is reflected in the barely stirring surface of the river. In harmony with this, some small, light-coloured houses and the coolness of the greenery create the impression of sunlight.

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Alfred Sisley, The Snow at Louveciennes, 1878. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

After the First Impressionism Exhibition Sisley spent several months in England. On his return, Sisley moved from Louveciennes to Marly-le Roi. Around this period Sisley truly became a painter of water. It cast a spell over him, forcing him to scrutinise its changing surface and to study its nuances of colour, as Monet did with meadows at Giverny.

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