In the Footsteps of Alfred Sisley - ‘The Painter of Placid Streams’

I photograph the landscapes of Alfred Sisley, the Englishman who lived and worked with the French impressionists
For some sixty miles around Paris, the Île de France encompasses the capital in deep lush forests, meandering poplar lined rivers and character stone villages.

The entire history of France seems to have been encapsulated in this area and the Royal Palaces and Chateau are the main attraction for visitors from Paris. For others the peace and tranquillity of walking in the Royal hunting forests around Rambouillet and Fontainbleau are equally attractive.

It was the forests, willowy rivers and tranquillity of the area so near to Paris that inspired landscape painters and in particular the impressionists.

As I travelled through the flickering sunlight of the Fontainbleau Forest, it seemed unbelievable that Paris and its commercial environs were only thirty minutes away. On a weekday morning in May the roads were deserted as I headed towards the medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing.

Moret lies slightly to the east of Fontainbleau and the green shaded drive takes you almost to this attractive riverside town, much beloved of the impressionist painter Alfred Sisley, who spent the last twenty years of his much troubled life there. Sisley, in fact has done much to contribute to the character of this little town which somehow seems to have retained a medieval air of quiet seclusion on the edge of the forest and not too far from the Champagne region.

I had set out that morning to photograph just some of the scenes around Moret which had inspired Sisley and his friends to paint the town and river views with such relentless enthusiasm. Like the impressionists a photographer must have a quality of light with which to work and it all looked promising that morning as impressionist clouds moved swiftly across the landscape and the silver backed leaves of the poplars shimmered in a warm breeze.

Approaching Moret by way of Thomery and St. Mammes, the river scene is one of the most attractive in the Île de France. It is here that the river opens up into a wide sweeping bend into which flows the Loing Canal.

Across this waterscape the Loing Bridge which was badly damaged during the last war and rebuilt to its original design, spans the river with its complex of weirs and islands.

Arriving in Moret across, the magnificent church of Notre Dame de Moret rising above the brown rooftops and painted gables of the old houses strikes the eye. In fact this very scene was a constant source of attraction to Alfred Sisley who painted it no less than thirty times.

The streets of Moret are narrow and full of character, the Rue Grande being the main thoroughfare flanked at either end by two solid stone Gatehouses, the Port de Samois and the Port de Bourgogne. These are the remains of the fourteenth century fortifications which defended the King’s residence before Fontainbleau became the official seat of French rulers.

Mingling my way through weekday shoppers, I strolled towards the church and the very corner where Sisley so frequently painted the church in different light, much as his friend Monet had done with his famous series paintings of Rouen Cathedral. The church of Moret has so clearly been influenced by the Notre Dame de Paris and remains an architectural gem with many original and delicately executed features.

Almost within the shadow of the church is 19 Rue Montmarte where Sisley set up his home and studio. Today the house is surrounded by a creeper clad wall and bears a much weathered plaque announcing ‘Maison de Sisley’. An old bell pull still hangs beside the door in the wall and one is tempted to think of Monet, Pissaro and Renoir pulling that very handle to announce their arrival in Moret.

It was inevitable that wandering around the echoing streets of this hauntingly atmospheric old town, like Sisley I too would be drawn to the river and the tree lined banks of the Loing.

During late May the willows and poplars lining the river provided a painterly backdrop offering a myriad of greens in a range of subtle shades. In the early afternoon sunshine it seemed Moret was very relaxed. Lovers lazed in the grass listening to the romantic sounds of the river lapping the banks and a young boy nonchalantly chased pigeons along the river path as he carried home three loaves of bread. It was particularly gratifying to view houses dotting the river bank which were instantly recognisable as the very buildings featured in Sisley and Pissaro canvases.

My walk was accompanied by birdsong and the occasional splash of a jumping fish. The only unnatural sound was that of the Paris bound train as it crossed the bridge separating St. Mammes from Moret.

The Bateau Ivre was once moored alongside the Quai du Loing, a former Seine barge where traditional French cuisine was served either in the cabin or on deck under colourful parasols. Today the Bateau Ivre was forlornly silent, moored near a boat yard close to St. Mammes, her windows broken and her structure rusting, seemingly the result of a tragic fire. The Loing merely lapped against her black hull, unaccompanied by the sounds of friendly chatter and the clatter of dinner plates.

A friendly swan entered the scene and obliged for the camera but seemed less friendly towards the fisherman who was struggling to haul in his keep net from the river. It was pleasing to see his entire catch returned to the Loing before he collected his gear and drove away, his face flowing with satisfaction.

Towards St. Mammes the barges and riverside scenes stepped right out of a Sisley painting. Situated at the confluence of the Loing and the Seine, St. Mammes still retains the atmosphere of a busy river port with rows of barges moored along the waterfront, although today most of them appear to be homes rather than working vessels. The Loing side of St. Mammes still portrays the atmosphere of Sisley’s paintings but along the Seine one has to accept the trappings of modern living in what is still a working port.

Suddenly the light began to give way to storm clouds and the first spots of rain soon developed into a heavy shower. At this point I returned towards Moret, reflecting on Sisley’s troubled life and his final years in this town where he found harmony with his surroundings.

Born in Paris of English parents in 1839, Alfred Sisley turned his back on a business career and persuaded his parents that painting was his destiny.

In the Paris studio of Charles Gleyre he met other young artists, Claude Monet from Le Havre, Auguste Renoir from Paris and Frederic Bazille from Montpelier.

Sisley married in 1866 but financial hardship followed him everywhere, forcing moves from Louveciennes, Marly-le-Roi and Sèvres to escape his creditors. In the face of extreme poverty and supported by his good friend George Charpentier, he painted prolifically in the countryside around the Seine, demonstrating his skills in true impressionist style.

Despite his determination and the tremendous sacrifice made by his family, Sisley’s paintings refused to sell. Art dealer Durand-Ruel took over one hundred canvases but in twenty five years very few offered a financial return.

Undaunted, Sisley found joy in the countryside of the Ille de France. He felt confident in what he was doing and possessing a happy disposition, waited patiently for the success which never came. Even the Paris Salon rejected Alfred Sisley and his paintings.

Following a final move to Moret-sur-Loing he decided to become a naturalised French citizen. Suffering from increasing ill health and lacking the strength to complete the many formalities, Alfred Sisley remained an Englishman. In 1898 he lost his devoted wife. She had unfailingly supported him and raised their family throughout years of dire poverty. Alone and desperately ill, Sisley died in Moret on the 29th January 1899, just fifty nine years old.

On the 1st February, a cold grey winter day, Sisley was laid to rest in the small cemetery of Moret which overlooks the town from its position in the Gros Bois. His old friends Monet and Renoir travelled from Paris to say farewell.

By a cruel twist of fate, the success denied Sisley during his lifetime came just three months after his death. The paintings left in his studio were auctioned and such was their demand, dealers were seen fighting over them. One painting ‘Flood at Port Marly’ which had once sold for a mere 180 francs, realised 43,000 francs and today hangs in the Louvre.

During his years in Moret, Sisley had become accepted with much affection by the townsfolk of Moret. The English artist who had lived, worked and suffered among them became affectionately known as the ‘Painter of Placid Streams’.

It was with some reluctance that I left Moret. I had found it a comfortable old town, full of character and living successfully with its past. It was not too difficult to understand why Sisley had found Moret to be a comforting haven from a life of perpetual struggle and torment. Under the spell of its charm I, too, felt I had escaped the realism of some other world. Certainly Moret and the river Loing had allowed my camera to revisit much of Sisley’s vision.