Alfred Sisley Biography
Born in Paris to bourgeois British parents, Sisley received an excellent education, even studying English and business in London before returning to Paris where his father arranged for the twenty-three year old to enter the studio of the history painter Charles Gleyre in 1862. Fellow students of Gleyre included Renoir, Monet and Bazille; their friendship was to revolutionize painting and radically change the history of art. Though none of the four felt a particular affinity for the highly academic and somewhat pedantic Gleyre, it was young Monet’s personality-clash with the master that resulted in the group leaving the studio and setting out on their own. Inseparable for a time, the group traveled and painted together.
During his first trip to London, from 1857-61, Sisley discovered the work of the English landscape painters Turner, Constable, and Bonnington, and the influence of England and English art remained strong throughout his career. Sisley’s early style being particularly influenced by the paintings of Corot, Courbet and Daubigny whom he met while working around Paris with his companions. Sisley painted in the French countryside with Renoir in 1866, his first year at the Salon, where he was received as a student of Corot, and in 1867 stayed for a time with Bazille, who painted his portrait that year.
Sisley returned to England from 1870 to 1871 (during the Franco-Prussian War) where he exhibited his paintings, and again in 1874. Having been financially supported by his family, and never worrying about having to earn his living as an artist, Sisley was shocked to learn upon the death of his father that the family business lay in ruins. Sisley, for the first time, was forced to paint with a commercial mind-set, selling landscape paintings for fifty francs each in order to support his family.
The Exposition Independantes, the first Impressionist show at Nadar’s that so affected the course of modern art, contained no less than twenty-one Sisley paintings. Though the show caused quite a scandal, generating a lot of press, though most of it negative, the subsequent sale, run by Paul Durand-Ruel at the Hotel Drouot, resulted in the artist’s twenty-one paintings bringing in only a little over two thousand francs, a bitter disappointment for the artist. Unfortunately, Sisley did not fair much better at the exhibition of 1876, two years later.
Few of the impressionists endured the hardships that befell Sisley, who was reduced at one point to selling reproductions of Rousseau’s paintings and his own paintings for twenty-five to thirty francs. Lacking a wealthy family, a condition that enabled the rest of the Impressionists to paint, Sisley depended on the kindness of friends to get by. Sisley and Renoir often found a table at the restaurant owned by M. Murer, a great lover of painting, who good-heartedly accepted Sisley’s oil paintings as payment for meals at his establishment. Without his generosity Sisley would have surely starved.
France’s economic crisis strongly affected the art world in Paris, making it especially difficult for artists painting in a new radical style to find support and patrons. Even Durand-Ruel, struggling with his own financial problems, abandoned his painter friends for a time. During these hard years, Sisley stayed outside of Paris, choosing instead the city’s suburbs where he could get by on less money. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, these surroundings provided the rich subject matter of his landscape paintings. Having painted the views of the regions outside Paris such as Argenteuil, Marly, Louveciennes and Bougival in the 1870’s, Sisley in the 80’s moved southward to landscapes around Moret-sur-Loing, south of the Forest of Fontainebleau. It was also in the 1880’s that Sisley began to sell more of his paintings, with the help of the dealer Durand-Ruel, who put on a successful exhibition in New York, where there was a new interest in the Impressionists.
The oil paintings Sisley painted in his later life were not always of the quality and invention of his paintings of the 1870’s and 80’s; like Pissarro, as he seemed to become constrained by a preoccupation with technique. He was considered to be something of a misanthrope, especially in his later years, feuding with Monet and breaking with Durand-Ruel, to whom he had owed his earliest success. Despite his early hardships and persistent moods, Sisley eventually achieved a considerable reputation but it was won at a high price and he had little time to enjoy it, dying at the age of sixty in 1899.