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SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
SISLEY by the Thames
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INTRODUCTION

Alfred Sisley is an intriguing character amongst the group of Impressionist painters because, although he was born and brought up in France, his parents were English. His father was a successful merchant dealing in fine silks and textiles but this respectability was a relatively recent development and the family business had its origins in the murky world of cross-channel smuggling based in the Romney Marsh area. His mother was a cultured woman with a keen interest in music and the arts. As with many of his contemporaries, the intention of his father was that his son should join the family firm and it was with this in mind that Alfred was sent to England in 1857 to prepare for a commercial career. This was a formative period for an eighteen year-old and it soon became clear that he had no aptitude for business and was much more interested in visiting art exhibitions and galleries. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square housed important works by the French landscape artist Claude as well as the recently bequeathed Turner collection and other works by Constable and Gainsborough. By the time Sisley returned to Paris in 1860 he had resolved to become an artist himself.
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Soon after his return home he enrolled at Gleyre’s studio, sponsored by his sympathetic father, where he studied for two years and where he first met Monet and Renoir. The Barbizon school of painting was a great influence at this early stage in the careers of this new generation of artists and Sisley, in company with Renoir and others, would often visit the forest of Fontainebleau, armed with painting materials and a change of clothes and would not return until their money ran out.
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These would seem to be have been happy times with the young painters developing their art in a relatively carefree atmosphere. However the reality of the established art world led to the work of Sisley, together with Monet, Cézanne, Guillemet, Bazille, Pissarro and Renoir, being rejected by the official Salon in 1867. This was an important catalyst in the development of an alternative artistic movement to that sponsored by the École des Beaux-Arts, eventually leading to the birth of Impressionism.
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It was also at this time that Sisley began his relationship with Eugénie Lescouezec, a florist, who became pregnant with their first child. Pierre was born in June 1867 while Sisley was away in Honfleur painting in the company of Monet and Guillemet. He returned to Eugénie’s address where the Sisley household was established for the next few years and where a second child Jeanne-Adèle was born in January 1869.
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By the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Sisley had moved to a house in Bougival, a suburb to the south-west of Paris, but abandoned this as the occupying forces approached. The precise move-ments of the Sisley household during the hostilities are unclear but it is possible that a short time was spent in England. He returned to find that most of the paintings of his youth had been destroyed and his financial security was also shattered when his father died and the support he had been dependant on came to end. Added to all this was further tragedy in the early death of a third child, Jacques. In the chaotic aftermath of the war and the Paris Commune the Sisley family returned to Louveciennes, another peaceful suburb adjacent to Bougival and not far from the banks of the Seine.
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There followed a relatively settled period in the artist’s life when he continued his collaboration with Monet and Renoir, producing many important works including the first series of ‘flood’ pictures at Port Marly in the winter of 1872. Although Durand-Ruel, the gallery owner and art dealer, was now actively promoting his work, sales were still few in number and financial difficulties were ever-present. In this atmosphere the artist was always keen to encourage the interest of potential patrons and Jean-Baptiste Faure, the well-known opera singer, was an early supporter.
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Faure had commissioned six paintings from the artist following the First Impressionist Exhibition in the spring of 1874 and it so happened that the singer was booked for a series of performances in London during the summer. So it was that Sisley was invited to accompany him to England. Initially the artist stayed in central London and was inspired to paint a city river scene, View of the Thames: Charing Cross Bridge, perhaps influenced by recent canvases by Daubigny, Pissarro and Monet. However, it was the more peaceful atmosphere of the riverside at Hampton Court that was to provide him with the subjects for a series of paintings. There were many similarities between the banks of the Thames in this semi-rural setting and the River Seine at Bougival and Port Marly and so the artist found ample opportunity to develop techniques and ideas that had been informing his work for several years.
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Between July and October Sisley stayed in the locality, probably at the Castle Hotel adjacent to the old bridge across the Thames and it is the river that is central to all of the canvases that he produced at this time. The area had become popular with visitors from central London after the opening of the railway link in 1849. Many of these were week-end day-trippers eager for a breath of country air and a brief escape from the crowds and confines of city life. There was also increasing suburbanisation as houses were built to accommodate middle-class commuters travelling in the other direction on week-days.
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As in France, there was a fascination with the effects on the environment when two worlds meet and in the case of the Hampton Court paintings it is often the depiction of leisure activities, be it rowing and regattas or riverside strolls, that provides much of the subject matter. Although the royal palace makes an occasional appearance it is not central to any of the pictures. The artist’s interest was not in a glorious past but contemporary life under sunny skies and in the context of a wealthy, self-assured and expansive society. Combined with this is Sisley’s fascination with the fleeting effects of sunlight and shadow, clouds and water, and wind and weather. The result is a series of paintings that perfectly capture a high summer of English life at a time of prosperity and confidence.
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Although Sisley made further brief visits to England in 1881 and possibly in 1887, his focus returned to the suburbs of Paris and his reputation as a leading Impressionist grew and grew, exhibiting in most of their exhibitions. However, success in the galleries and salerooms continued to allude him. Added to money troubles was increasingly fragile health and these factors led him and his family to move several times, ending up in Moret-sur-Loing, close to Fontainbleau to the south-east of Paris, where he would end his days and where he would paint many of his most iconic images.
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Towards the end of his life the nation of his forebears still had one more role to play. Although accepted by his contemporaries as an integral part of their movement he tried unsuccessfully to gain French citizenship on several occasions. In July 1897 when the health of both his partner and himself began to fail they travelled to England and after staying in Falmouth for a short time, they journeyed on to south Wales. Sisley completed several important canvases during their stay but more significantly he legitimised his relationship with Eugénie when they married at Cardiff Registry Office on August 5th. They returned to Moret in the late autumn. In October the following year Eugénie died from cancer of the tongue. Sisley’s own health was failing fast and he finally died from cancer of the throat in January 1899 having endured two operations and a great deal of pain before his death. Although he had lived and worked in France for almost his entire life and contributed enormously to the nation’s
artistic heritage, he died an Englishman.


Another visitor from France

Ferdinand Gueldry (1858–1945) was an enthusia
stic rower and international referee for the sport and made several visits to England to participate in regattas on the Thames. He was also recognised as a skillful artist who exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon. His principal subjects were boating scenes on the rivers Marne and Seine, many of them near his home at Bry-sur-Marne. In 1896 he was inspired to paint this lively depiction of Molesey Lock (Ecluse de Molesey) which can now be seen at the Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne in the eastern suburbs of Paris (www.musee-nogentsurmarne.fr).