Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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