Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Avshalom Avital
Alfred Sisley
French, 1839–1899
Barges on the Loing at Saint-Mammès
Oil on canvas
55.2 x 73.7 cm
Bequest of Batsheva de Rothschild, Tel Aviv
Public Domain
Accession number: B00.1707
Sisley’s move in 1880 back to the region of the Forest of Fontainebleau was a return to the place he and his companions Monet, Renoir, and Bazille had begun their Impressionist careers some twenty years previously. But unlike the 1860s, which had been filled with the excitement of discovery and the exploration of new ideas, the 1880s found the Impressionists in a state of disarray. To an extent this was the result of internal developments in their work, but beyond those, a catalyst that brought on a period of acute self-questioning was a series of articles published by their one-time supporter, the novelist and critic Emile Zola. In these, Zola attacked the Impressionists for their fascination with transient moments rather than the fundamental truths of nature, and for failing to create modern masterpieces. Each of the group reacted to this onslaught in a different way, but the work of every one of them was changed considerably.

The alterations in Sisley’s style were perhaps the least radical of the group. Though in the 1880s and ’90s he extended the range of his palette, and his surfaces were much more richly worked in varied brushstrokes and intricate paint textures than before, his essential orientation continued to be that of examining the possibilities of the Impressionist style from within. Systematically, Sisley investigated the potential of his new surroundings and found that they yielded an abundance of motifs for his work. These he continued to paint in the open air, confronting nature directly, and capturing its fleeting effects. He would later declare that the region of Moret-sur-Loing was the source of his best and personally most significant work.

Barges on the Loing at Saint-Mammés was painted in 1885, one of Sisley’s most prolific years. In that year he painted this same area a number of times, albeit from differing vantage points. In all these works his preoccupation with water and its reflections manifests itself. In our painting, the atmosphere is calm and quiet, the scene almost deserted save for a stroller on the embankment and some fishermen in their boat. Often the artist added his small figures last as a kind of visual punctuation. Despite their minuteness and incidental character, they enliven the landscape. In the middleground, a cluster of moored barges awaiting cargo extends out from the right bank. To the right in the distance, the lock spanning the river is just visible. On the left bank, sturdy, two- and three-story houses with slanted, red-tiled roofs and chimneys line the waterfront, and are reflected in the river below. The red-blue primary color contrasts found in the roofs against the sky and the crimson reflections in the water—a departure from the artist’s usually delicate harmonies—are mitigated by numerous lilac touches that unify the composition. Sisley’s deep concern for surface textures is evident in the sky, which is freely brushed in broad strokes, and the water, which abounds with lively dabs and longer streaks of blues and pinks.

During the 1880s Sisley began to receive a degree of recognition. He was given exhibitions, and toward the end of the decade the French state made its first purchase of one of his works. Nevertheless, when he died in January, 1899 he was the only Impressionist never to have attained real success during his lifetime.

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Painting and Sculpture, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2006, English / Hebrew

Digital presentation of this object was made possible by: Ms. Joan Lessing, New York and Jerusalem