Storr’s Rock, Lady’s Cove, Evening, 1897 by Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899).
(Above) © Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. Acquired with the assistance of The Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), 2004.
Exhibition review – Freya McClelland visits Sisley in England and Wales, running until February 15 2009 at London’s National Gallery.
As you walk into this National Gallery exhibition featuring the works of Alfred Sisley, what immediately strikes you is the serenity and gentle beauty of his work.
From the centre of the room each painting, though impressionist in style, is exacting in clarity. The oils, whether pastel or forest tones, appear vibrant and luminous as if it had this second stopped raining and the sun had come from behind a cloud.
Sisley was the only Englishman to be included among the ranks of the French Impressionists. Born in Paris to English parents, he was one of the greatest landscape painters of the 19th century but remains unknown to many people.
Despite living in France he remained a British citizen but painted in the UK on only two occasions, almost a quarter of a century apart. He first worked in Britain in1874 and then in 1897.
Regatta at Hampton Court, 1874, by Alfred Sisley (1839-1899). Private Collection, Switzerland. © Photo courtesy of the owner.
These were two of his most creative periods, according to the gallery, which has brought the two groups of paintings together for the first time.
The impressionists painted quickly, trying to capture the transitory effects of sunlight, the changing shadow and colour of a scene. This technique further heightens the immediacy of Sisley's paintings.
Unlike his contemporary, Turner, or the Impressionist, Monet, Sisley appears not to have been interested in capturing the nation’s capital. The river scene View of the Thames: Charing Cross Bridge is the only canvas he painted when in London at this time.
The rest of his subjects in this first visit in 1874 were found at Hampton Court and along the west of the Thames in the nearby riverside village of East Molesey.
As Monet did in the outskirts of Paris, Sisley captured the river in colourful lemon-lit scenes of suburban sociability: boating parties, swimming, and strolling under the sunshine.
The Cliff at Penarth, Evening, Low Tide, 1897 by Alfred Sisley (1839-1899).
(Above © Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. Acquired with the assistance of The Art Fund and the Gibbs Family Trust, 1993.
There is an easy joy and youthful spontaneity to these paintings. It appears relaxed and informal with thick white impasto, and the figures of the naked bathers are executed with great economy.
Sisley didn’t return to the UK until 1897, when he did so to marry his long-term partner Eugenie Lescouzec. They stayed shortly in London and then Cornwall, but not finding the landscape inspirational the couple took lodgings at Penarth, a seaside resort near Cardiff, and at Langland Bay near Swansea.
Here, at the very end of his life, Sisley portrayed, with remarkable maturity and skill, the ruggedly beautiful coast of Wales. Enthralled by windy cliffs, he captured the distinctive light effects on the sea and the tidal ranges in the Bristol Channel.
Painting in series as Monet did, Sisley captured Storr’s Rock at three points: with waves breaking in the morning, in the still of midday and as the light falls away at sundown.
The subtleties of the changing natural light are carefully observed and the result is quite breathtaking. Sisley's mature characteristics are evident; an emphasis on the sky to light the picture, creating atmosphere and giving an indication of time and weather conditions, with which Constable had also been concerned.
Lady’s Cove, Langland Bay, Morning, 1897 by Alfred Sisley (1839 -1899). Private Collection, New York. © Photo courtesy of the owner.
The lack of human subject enhanced the rugged beauty of the Welsh coastline. The tankers on the horizon the only nod to the industrial age he was living through.
These seascapes, possibly his best work, were among his last. Each painting requires careful examination but from close up and afar. There are only 16 paintings in the exhibition.
My advice is to turn right and then left out of the gallery into room 43 where you can see Sisley amid his fellow Impressionists. On the right, between two Monet’s, hangs a Sisley. The similarities are striking but Sisley forges his own style in more definite brush strokes, his great feeling for space and in his overall tranquillity.
Unlike Monet or Renoir he did not confront urban life in his landscapes, and his view of nature was not shaped by anarchist politics like Pissarro's. Instead Sisley painted the natural landscape without sentimentality but with subtle brilliance. Though lesser known, he deserves his place among these men.
The exhibition is free.