Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)
PROPERTY FROM THE JOHN C. WHITEHEAD COLLECTION Few individuals attained the breadth and scale of achievement as the businessman, diplomat, and philanthropist John C. Whitehead. A man of unequalled ambition and integrity, Whitehead spearheaded the transformation of the banking firm Goldman Sachs into the global powerhouse it is today; stood as a key diplomatic figure at the end of the Cold War; and led numerous civic and charitable organizations, including the post-9/11 Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, to great success. Whitehead’s striking collection of fine art, grounded in the work of the French Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, serves as a tangible legacy of this great American leader. PROPERTY FROM THE JOHN C. WHITEHEAD COLLECTION
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

Canal du Loing

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)
Canal du Loing
signed and dated 'Sisley. 85' (lower right)
oil on canvas
18 1/8 x 21 ¾ in. (46.1 x 55.2 cm.)
Painted in 1885
French Art Galleries, New York (by 1948).
Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Weir, Atlanta (by 1959).
Peter and Rayner Weir, New York and North Carolina (by descent from the above).
Acquired from the above by Achim Moeller Fine Art on behalf of John C. Whitehead, 2002.
F. Daulte, Alfred Sisley: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Lausanne, 1959, no. 574 (illustrated).
M.A. Stevens, ed., Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1992, p. 206.
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Alfred Sisley: Loan Exhibition, October-December 1966, no. 56.

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Lot Essay

In January 1880, Sisley moved from the Paris suburbs to the more remote and rural region near the confluence of the Seine and the Loing, about seventy-five miles southeast of the capital, close to the forest of Fontainebleau where the artists of the Barbizon school painted from 1830 to 1870. He immediately made the area his own, tirelessly exploring the converging rivers, gently undulating terrain, and expansive sky until his death in 1899. “Sisley had found his country,” the critic Gustave Geffroy later declared (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. 183).
For almost the whole of his first decade in the region, Sisley lived at Veneux-Nadon and the adjacent hamlet of Les Sablons, on the fringe of the Fontainebleau forest. His principal subjects during this period were the quays and waterways at nearby Saint-Mammès, a bustling river-port that occupies the right angle formed by the banks of the Seine and the Loing. Sisley had experimented during the later 1870s with the creation of short sequences of paintings, depicting the same subject from different viewpoints and under changing conditions, and this nascent serial procedure became more systematic and pronounced at Veneux-Nadon. He recorded the sweep of the rivers at Saint-Mammès from every possible angle, shifting his position or simply adjusting his sight line to create a circular panorama–a veritable visual map–of his home country.
Sisley painted this tranquil summer scene from a spot at the very mouth of the semi-canalized Loing, where it empties into the Seine. Standing on the left bank, the Seine at his back and the flat pastures of Veneux-Nadon stretching away to the right, he looked upstream toward the viaduct carrying the Paris-Lyons railway line, its distinctive double span and high arches forming a central focus on the distant horizon. On the opposite bank, at the far left of the canvas, is the imposing customs building that still stands today beside the locks; smaller, red-roofed houses cluster around it, nearly all of them occupied in Sisley’s day by people working on the river. This was Sisley’s very favorite place to paint in 1884-1885, and he explored its pictorial possibilities in no fewer than fifty canvases. “Sisley remained rooted in his subjects, conveying in his views every perceived sensation, no matter how delicate and fugitive,” William Johnston has written. “For him, the ephemeral is trapped by his sequential exploration of a given location” (ibid., p. 196).
In Le canal du Loing, Sisley focused his attention on the visual contrast between the leisurely recession of the river into depth and the high, relentlessly flattened plane of the sky. In the bottom right of this painting, a grassy spit of land marks the spot where the artist stood, calling attention to his agency in framing the vista, and also serves a repoussoir device to lead the viewer’s eye into the pictorial space. The gently plunging diagonals of the river and its banks, however, terminate unexpectedly at the low horizon line, which stretches across the entire width of the canvas, punctuated intermittently by a chimney or tall poplar tree. Sisley devoted more than two-thirds of the painting to the depiction of the sky, limpid blue but for the faintest wisps of cloud. This unified expanse of color seems to press toward the picture plane rather than receding into depth, the same illusion that one might experience under the hazy, shimmering heat of a high summer’s day.
Sisley has rendered the rippling surface of the river and the grassy banks with small, overlapping touches of paint, more even and systematic than his brushwork from earlier in the decade. This may reflect his mounting awareness of Neo-Impressionism, first presented to the public in Seurat’s Un Baignade, Asnières of 1884, the year before the present painting. Although Sisley is not known to have journeyed away from Veneux-Nadon between 1883 and 1889, it is possible that he made brief trips to Paris during this period, and he may have discussed Seurat’s new and controversial methods with Pissarro, by then a committed advocate of Neo-Impressionism. “The unusually robust technique,” Johnston has written, “confirms the artist’s evolving style and increasing strength despite his isolation from colleagues and his financial straits” (ibid., p. 206).

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