The Englishman among the Impressionists, Alfred Sisley was born in Paris of English parents. Except for 1857 through 1861, when he was sent to London to study business, which he abandoned and then returned to Paris in 1861 to study art. Sisley was a founding member of the Impressionist movement in1873, and he participated in most of their eight exhibitions. His specialty was landscape which he always painted in plein air. Several short trips to London to study the work of English landscape painters Constable and Turner convinced him to embrace nature as a theme for his paintings. When asked by Adolphe Tavernier, writer, art critic, collector and journalist, who his favorite painters were, Sisley mentioned the Barbizon landscape painters Corot, Millet, and Rousseau, and the Realist painter Courbet. Sisley referred to them as masters “who love nature and had deep feelings for it.”
It was not until the Impressionists started painting outdoors that paintings of snow became popular. “Early Snow in Louveciennes” (1870-71) (21.1’’ x 29’’) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), was one of Sisley’s first paintings of snow. Painting in the Realist style meant that the color used was the perceived color of the object. As a result, snow was a thick layer of white paint applied to the canvas. Sisley followed the prescribed tradition and rendered an affectionate vision of Louveciennes–road, houses, people, trees, sky, and the village. Sisley moved to Louveciennes in 1871, and he found the town and its surroundings an endless source of subject matter.
By 1872, the ideas of Impressionism were beginning to appear is Sisley’s work. In “The Frost” (1872) (18’’x 22.4’’) he begins to apply the recent scientific discovery that light, sunlight, candle light, fire light, do not contain the colors white or black. Natural light is the spectrum of colors in the rainbow: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Sunlight shining on white frost began to be represented by the colors yellow and orange on white. Shadows were not gray, but blues and purples. Sisley continued to depict the dark sides of the brown trees as black. However, his composition explored the play of the sun’s complementary colors. The oranges of fall foliage are complemented by the blues and purples found throughout the composition. Sisley’s use of blues and purples has created the atmosphere of chill on this frosty day. His brushwork consists of dabs of paint that create a sparkle on the frost.
“The Road to Louveciennes, Snow Effect” (1874) (26.5’’x 36’’) fully embraces Impressionism. The village of Louveciennes is covered in snow. Viewers are invited to trudge through the snow, turn left, and walk with two figures who pass by the fences and fields of the rural village. Houses, large and small, appear in this panoramic view. Church towers reach into the sky. The day is sunny, and the snow glistens. Peace and well-being radiate from this blissful scene.
A similar Sisley painting “Effect of Snow in Louveciennes” (1874) was sold in 2017 at Sotheby’s for $9,064,733. Sisley’s paintings have become quite valuable.
Sisley’s ability to render all the seasons in all their variation is masterful. “Winter in Louveciennes” (1876) (23.25’’ x28.75’’) depicts a long cold winter when the snow lingers on the roof tops and in the trees. The atmosphere is thick with cold. The blues and purples are balanced against the browns of the houses. Mixing any of the six colors on the color wheel with its complementary color, orange with blue, red with green, or yellow with purple, produces brown. Sisley added small dashes of black where no light was available inside rooms and under roofs. The postures of three male figures dressed in black clothing with black hats let the viewer know that it is indeed cold.
“Snow at Louveciennes” (1878) (24’’x 20’’) (Phillips Collection, Washington, DC) is an example of Sisley’s continued fascination with nature and his local environment. Louveciennes is in the western suburbs of Paris between Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Louveciennes and the near-by village Marley-le-Roi were home for Sisley and his family. In this later work, Sisley developed a style that combined Impressionist colors with the traditional use of black and white. He chose what worked on the day and the feeling he wanted to represent. Here, the snow is unmarked by footsteps. A lone woman wearing black walks toward the town in the background.
Art historians usually interpret Sisley’s winter scenes as relating to personal difficulties and struggles to take care of his family. “Solitary,” “empty,” and “bleak” are frequent descriptions of his paintings. However, if you enjoy the solitude of a snowy day, and find beauty and peace in a winter landscape, as this writer does, you will find Sisley’s winter paintings are exhilarating.
Happy Winter Solstice!
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.