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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Poet of the Brush

Nearly every town in America, and probably the rest of the world too, has somewhere within its confines, perhaps right in its center, a monument.  Sometimes it's a tribute to veterans of a war or two ago, sometimes it's meant to honor all who have served their country in one way or another.  Sometimes it is erected to honor a certain individual.  In any case, it has served also to keep some talented sculptor happy and healthy for a time.

In the small French town of Moret-sur-Loing there is erected the bust of the town's most outstanding citizen.  He was not a military hero, a wealthy businessman, nor an influential diplomat.  He was a painter. His name is Alfred Sisley.  He died there in 1899, a destitute invalid, suffering from rheumatism and throat cancer.  He spent the last 28 years of his life living in and painting the small community with a serene sensitivity that earned him the title the "Poet of the Brush".

Sisley was born in Paris in 1839, the son of well-to-do English parents.  His father was a successful silk merchant. He served a brief apprenticeship in London trying without much luck to learn the family business.  Perhaps it was little wonder.  His heart wasn't in it. He spent most of his time in museums studying the landscapes of Constable and Turner.  He wanted to be a painter.  In 1862, with his father's blessing and financial support, Sisley returned to Paris to enroll in classes taught by the academician, Charles Gleyre. 

Alfred Sisley, 1882

It was not an obvious choice.  Gleyre was a history painter and considered landscapes decadent art.  But tuition was minimal and Gleyre was indulgent.  He had to have been, given the fact that he numbered amongst his students the likes of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Frederic Bazille. Sisley fell into this group of future Impressionists and grew with them and their nascent movement.  During the 1860s he painted with them in Marlotte, near the forests of Fountainbleu. He also displayed with them in the various Impressionist shows.  He lived comfortably on his father's money.

Avenue of Chestnut Trees near La Celle-Saint-Cloud,
 1865, Alfred Sisley

However, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Sisley's father's business was ruined and he died shortly thereafter in bankruptcy.  Sisley and his family lived in poverty the rest of his life.  Sisley also lived in the shadow of the much more daring Monet the rest of his life.  He seldom sold any work and when he did it was for a pittance.  And, while Monet lived long enough for Impressionism and his contribution to it to gain him some acclaim and wealth, Sisley didn't.  However, the English influence of Turner and of Constable is forever present in all his works and his paintings constitute a rare and expressive blending of the English and French landscape traditions.

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