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

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.

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.

Actually Sisley's art appears to have benefited from awareness of the landscape traditions of both countries - Constable and Turner in Britain, Corot and the Barbizon School in France. But whatever his early allegiances, when he is painting full-swing as a mature Impressionist he is completely his own man. He may in the end not have seemed as daring as Monet, but his contemporaries still found his work bafflingly modern and unacademic.

Sisley cannot, with any justice, be called a timid painter, however shy he may have been as a person. But nothing is apparently known about his character, either, except that his friends found him charming and affable.

Finally, the only fair way to get to know Sisley is through his paintings, and that is certainly made possible by this exhibition. Variable in quality, at his best he had a fresh confidence and highly inventive use of color and brushmark, which is the equal of any of his peers. Intuitive grasp of color

The show also lays to rest various claims strangely made by different writers (who could have checked their facts - there has been a catalogue raisonne of Sisley's work available for reference since 1959) - such as one statement that he never painted still life, or another that he couldn't match Monet as a painter of bold rocks and surging ocean. Sisley did both with striking accomplishment. And none of the other great Impressionists painted snow better or more authentically; or the inner reflected hues trapped in shadows; or the shine and darkness of rain. Or evening. Or autumn.

Sisley contributed with extraordinary imaginativeness to the potential of painting: he was a distinct part of Impressionism - and who really knows which of these remarkable artists was first to arrive at the kind of practical inventiveness that placed two touches of unprecedented resonating color next to each other and made the canvas come alive?

It is this chemistry of intuition that makes any painting (or poem or piece of music) "work," and this is particularly the case with Impressionism.

Sisley was a master of the intuitive use of paint and color. He seems to have been uninterested in theory, concentrating on practice. He is simply one of the world's most astonishing painters, and his most vital canvases retain startling veracity and immediacy.

The only failing of this tribute to him is that it isn't big enough to make the visitor feel he has seen the whole artist. Recent international shows of Renoir and Manet contained 127 and 221 works apiece. Though similar to those exhibitions, the Sisley has only a total of 75 works.

I wonder why. Has Sisley yet again been slighted, in spite of best intentions? Pissarro said Sisley was "a great and beautiful artist, in my opinion he is a master equal to the greatest." He also told Matisse that Sisley was the only "typical Impressionist."

Perhaps this show should be seen as the beginning of a re-assessment. Perhaps there is still room for the art historians to come to grips with this man's easy-looking exploration of the possibilities of paint.

* The exhibition closes in London on Oct. 18. It will be at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris from Oct. 28 to Jan. 31 1993; and then at The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, March 14 to June 13.

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