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A Reputation Reborn: Painter Alfred Sisley

An exhibition at the Royal Academy grants a little-appreciated 19th-century artist serious exposure and a reassessment of his role in Impressionism

By Christopher AndreaeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 1992


THE name Alfred Sisley has not become commonly known like Monet, Renoir, or even Pissarro. Yet Sisley was not some camp follower of the French Impressionists. He was one of the initiators, exhibiting in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and several thereafter.

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Sisley (1839-1899) was an original and inspired exponent of the outdoor, on-the-spot painting that made the transient effects of light and weather - and a vigorously captured feeling of the momentary - as important as the landscape or cityscape on which the sun shone and the rain rained.

An exhibition at the Royal Academy in London is intended to give this splendid 19th century painter - too often considered, as a critic once said, "a pretty colorist of only relative importance" - a serious, full-scale exposure and assessment. Because Sisley has been the least written about, least exhibited, and least subjected to critical or historical analysis of all the major Impressionists, such an exhibition and its accompanying catalog is undoubtedly overdue; and in some measure justice has been do ne.

The show travels later to Paris and Baltimore, so it is an ambitious international effort. The question remains, however, as to whether Sisley's work repays this effort or is strong enough to withstand such detailed attention. Underlying such questions is a deeper one: To what extent can we judge an artist's worth by the amount of intellectual and art-historical discussion he may prompt? Reassessing the painter

Sisley was an unpretentious artist, sticking almost exclusively to landscape. He changed and developed over the years, after that period in the 1870s when Impressionism might be said to have reached its peak. His divergence from the work he had created during this peak period, however, was not as radical as that of fellow Impressionists Renoir and Pissarro. Even Monet (whose reputation has been greatly enhanced in recent years by critical reassessments, while he arguably developed in a line from Impressi onism, pulled the movement's preoccupations into new spheres, and into a kind of painting that was both more decorative and more personal. If Sisley altered his style, he never deviated from the basics of Impressionism.

Christopher Lloyd's fair-minded catalog essay tries to endow Sisley with some sort of philosophical background. He quotes passages from the writings of Elisee Reclus that sound like ecological plaints of the 1990s, rather than the 1860s.

Mr. Lloyd means to suggest that Sisley, with an eye to subjects where landscape was being invaded by industry and urbanization, intended his paintings to carry some such conservationist message. Unfortunately there is no way for Lloyd to prove Sisley was influenced by or even for certain knew the writings of Reclus. Maybe he did. But his paintings are much more obviously occupied with the truthful re-creation of subtle tones of shadow and sunlight, of lively and luminous skies, of silhouetted roofs or tr ees, of water flowing under bridges than with the promotion of environmental concern.

Lloyd does suspect that one reason for Sisley's comparative neglect by art historians is the almost complete absence of documents about his life: few letters, and those uninformative; only one extant sketchbook, and that merely a record of paintings already painted; and not even the kind of accumulation of critical judgments that successive historians like to shoot down. He also wonders whether Sisley's double nationality - Anglo-French - confused people.