The Seine at Suresnes, c.1874, Collection Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria. On display.
IN 1874 a frustrated group of artists called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers etc, organised an exhibition in Paris that launched the movement called impressionism. The members of the group, which included artists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, were diverse in their approach to painting. They were, however, united in their rejection of the strict philosophy of the Paris salons and united in their frustration with the officially run art exhibitions.
Another founding member of impressionism was Alfred Sisley, but during his lifetime he was one of the least known of the group. He was overshadowed by his friends and never had their critical or financial success. He died a virtual pauper in 1899.
Although Sisley made only a meagre living from his art, he was always faithful to his vision. He remained focused on the mood created by atmosphere and weather — which often dominate his paintings — with particular emphasis on the sky.
Unlike his contemporaries, he avoided painting portraits or still lifes, preferring typical impressionist scenes such as villages near Paris and views of the Seine.
About a year after his death his talent began to be widely recognised and the prices of his work rose sharply.
Sisley was born in Paris in 1839 to affluent British parents. He was sent to London in 1857 to prepare for a business career, but spent much of his time studying the works of Constable and Turner. In 1862, supported financially by his parents, he returned to Paris and enrolled as a pupil of Charles Gleyre, where he met Monet and PierreAuguste Renoir. He also studied under Camille Corot, who influenced his preference for soft tones.
Sisley’s financial support ceased when his parents were ruined during the Franco- German War of 1870-71, yet despite this crisis in his life, it was during this time that he decided to paint full time. Sisley exhibited six paintings in the first impressionist exhibition of 1874 and one of his paintings from that same year is also in the collection of the Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria.
When I visit the gallery to see The Seine at Suresnes, the gallery’s curator Tansy Curtin tells me this painting was owned by a local doctor, James A. Neptune Scott. Every year Scott would travel to Europe for three or four months and would buy paintings.
Unfortunately, he kept no records of where he bought the works but he donated many of them to the Bendigo Art Gallery in his will. The Seine at Suresnes has been in the collection since 1947.
‘‘ The interesting part of the story is that in the 1980s we had an expert come out from the Louvre in Paris to tell us whether they were real or fakes,’’ Curtin says.
‘‘ We actually used the X-ray machine at the hospital to X-ray them and we found that a number of them were forgeries. But a number of them were real and the Sisley turned out to be one of the very important Sisleys.’’
Indeed, the Louvre expert, Helene Toussaint, regarded The Seine at Suresnes as a major discovery because it was unknown in France. Toussaint also believed that the painting was a perfect example of the loose and bold technique used by Sisley during the 1870s.
Curtin says the Sisley is impressive with its beautiful use of colour.
‘‘ What I love about his work and the impressionists in general is all the wonderful colour, and the lines are delineated with colour rather than black so you have all these wonderful forms and textures in the work.
‘‘ You think, ‘ Oh yes, it’s just a riverscape’ but you have these wonderful glowing pinks and blues and they are so soft and delicate. It really is quite lovely.’’
Oil on canvas, 47.8cm x 65.6cm