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Alfred Sisley

Portrait of Alfred Sisley

Why did we forget about Alfred Sisley?

What happened to poor Alfred?

Alfred Sisley gave up a career in business to paint outdoors. Together with Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Morisot, Sisley helped father the Impressionist movement — but unlike his contemporaries, his work was never highly valued, and to this day he remains the forgotten impressionist. And so we ask, what happened to poor Sisley?

Alfred Sisley was raised in Paris in the well-to-do family of a luxury importer. His father encouraged him to study business, and sent him to London at age 17 to learn the trade. But in London, Sisley discovered the shimmering seascapes of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable’s pastoral fields. Sisley returned to Paris at 21, intent on studying painting.

Back in Paris, Sisley studied painting alongside Renoir, Monet and Frédéric Bazille. The four young artists traveled together, grew disillusioned with the academic expectations of the Salon, and developed the foundations of the new ‘plein air’ genre of expressive, outdoor painting. Over the next 20 years, Sisley took part in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1874, 1876, 1877, and 1882 — a substantial contributor to the movement.

But Sisley’s work was never truly appreciated. Unlike Renoir, who’s painting hung in the Louvre next to the old masters, or Monet, who was able to buy and build a rural paradise for his family outside of Giverny, Sisley’s work sold poorly, and after the death of his father in 1870, he lived out his career in poverty. Even today, Sisley’s work sells at auction for a fraction of that of his contemporaries, and his life and practice have been relatively neglected by scholars and curators alike.

Why so little love for Sisley?

There are a number of possible reasons why Sisley was ignored. Some historians guess that the influence of English painters on his work made it less marketable in France. Sisley also left behind very few documents of his life. Few letters, and just a single sketchbook — all blandly uninformative.

We’ve got our own theory though, that applies to Sisley and many lesser known artists: Sisley wasn’t interested in innovation, and western art fetishizes change. Through his whole career, Sisley painted landscapes. Serene, meditative landscapes with a careful eye for weather and light. While his contemporaries evolved their styles, pushing and changing Impressionism, Sisley stayed the course, simply refining and practicing his plein air work. But constancy isn’t valued — historian Robert Rosenblum described his work as having “almost a generic character, an impersonal textbook idea of a perfect Impressionist painting” summing up the dismissal of non-disruptive art.

Though much of art history we see the rebels idolized, the innovators put on a pedestal. But art history is bigger than first place, and the patent refinement of a single, beautiful idea is worth noticing. So when you look as Sisley’s work, slow down, take it in. Take a moment to appreciate a life of quiet, dedicated practice.


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Reed Enger, "Alfred Sisley, Why did we forget about Alfred Sisley?," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 22, 2015; last modified May 21, 2018, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/alfred-sisley/.

Read More
Women Going to the Woods, Alfred Sisley

Women Going to the Woods

1866
Early Snow at Louveciennes, Alfred Sisley

Early Snow at Louveciennes

1870-1871
Port-Marly, White Frost, Alfred Sisley

Port-Marly, White Frost

1872
The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Alfred Sisley

The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne

1872
Fog, Voisins, Alfred Sisley

Fog, Voisins

1874
La Tamise avec Hampton church, Alfred Sisley

La Tamise avec Hampton church

1874
Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Alfred Sisley

Molesey Weir, Hampton Court

1874
The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring, Alfred Sisley

The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring

1875
Boat in the Flood at Port Marly, Alfred Sisley

Boat in the Flood at Port Marly

1876
Grapes and Walnuts on a Table, Alfred Sisley

Grapes and Walnuts on a Table

1876
Allée of Chestnut Trees, Alfred Sisley

Allée of Chestnut Trees

1878
Rest along the Stream. Edge of the Wood, Alfred Sisley

Rest along the Stream. Edge of the Wood

1878
Saint-Mammès, Alfred Sisley

Saint-Mammès

1879
The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes, Alfred Sisley

The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes

1879
Banks of the Loing — Autumn Effect, Alfred Sisley

Banks of the Loing — Autumn Effect

1881
A path at Les Sablons, Alfred Sisley

A path at Les Sablons

1883
La Croix-Blanche at Saint-Mammès, Alfred Sisley

La Croix-Blanche at Saint-Mammès

1884

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