In January 1880, struggling to make ends meet, 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 near the Forest of Fontainebleau. 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 Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1992, p. 183).
Sisley initially settled at the town of Veneux-Nadon on the left bank of the Seine, in a large house just a few minutes’ walk from both the village center and the rail station. A nearby footbridge over the railroad tracks gave access to the riverbank, and the Forest of Fontainebleau was a short walk to the west. In the fall of 1882, Sisley moved three miles southeast to the medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing. He missed the wealth of pictorial possibilities around his previous home, however, and remained at Moret for only a year before re-locating to the hamlet of Les Sablons, immediately adjacent to Veneux-Nadon, where he would live until 1889. “The situation was ideal,” Richard Shone has written, “for the variety of the immediate landscape–farmland and forest, rail, river and canal, cottage gardens on the one hand, overgrown copses on the other, the whole area teeming with chance viewpoints and constantly changing light” (Sisley, London, 1992, p. 128).
During his early years in the region, Sisley frequently painted in the orchards and meadows that lead from Veneux down to the Seine, as well as exploring the steep slopes that line that river as it loops northward toward the village of By. Following his move to Les Sablons in 1883, he seems to have favored the terrain further south and closer to his new home. The present painting, dated 1884, depicts a well-worn footpath as it curves to enter a dense thicket of trees; the land drops off gently to the right of the trail, offering a distant view of the river and the first blush of sunset on the low horizon. Daulte has identified the site as the Chemin des Fontaines at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, just over a kilometer due west of Sisley’s house at Les Sablons. There is nothing in the scene, though, to remind us of the forest’s social role as a leisurely playground, nor any sense of an organized agrarian community. Rather, the painting positions the viewer in Sisley’s own footsteps, re-creating his experience of the landscape as he passes from the open, accessible terrain in the foreground into the meditative shade of the woods, hidden around the bend in the path.
“At this period Sisley defines a vein of undomesticated solitude,” Shone has written. “He is solemn and solitary, as he shows us the interlacing of bare trees against the immense diffidence of the sky. The chord contains his familiar notes of distilled structure and varied brushwork but is deepened by a sense of disconsolate withdrawal. Over the years this became a continuous accompaniment even to his most untroubled transcriptions of high summer” (ibid., p. 135).
By the time he painted Chemin des Fontaines à Veneux-Nadon , Sisley had achieved the greatest period of financial stability in his career, which allowed him to explore his surroundings in comparative freedom from commercial concerns. Between 1880 and 1885, Durand-Ruel purchased as many as forty-five canvases directly from Sisley each year, as well as working tirelessly to promote his work in France and abroad. The dealer most likely acquired the present canvas within a year or two of its creation, before his finances began to founder. Soon after, it passed into the collection of M. Picq-Véron, who appears to have been a creditor of the dealer (op cit., 1992, p. 124). After Durand-Ruel’s fortunes improved once again, he hastened to recover the canvas, which he must have held in high esteem, reinstating it as part of his inventory on 25 June 1892.