‘He is the painter of great blue rivers curving towards the horizon; of blossoming orchards; of bright hills with red-roofed hamlets scattered about; he is, above all, the painter of French skies, which he presents with admirable vivacity and facility.’
(C. Mauclair, quoted in A. Dumas, ‘Alfred Sisley: The True Impressionist’, in Sisley: Poeta del Impresionismo, exh. cat., Madrid, 2002, p. 375)
Alfred Sisley’s depictions of the rural, French countryside occupy an important position in the early development of Impressionism. At the beginning of the 1870s, Sisley, along with Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro, was drawn to the small riverside towns and villages of the Île-de-France, finding a wealth of inspiration in the meeting of open, unspoiled nature, and increasingly cultivated and inhabited land. With bright, harmonious colour, varied brushstrokes and bold contrasts of light and shade, Le potager demonstrates the new artistic vocabulary that Sisley and his Impressionist colleagues employed, imbuing their painting with an innovative vitality and spontaneity, characteristics that became the abiding principles of the Impressionist movement. Painted in 1872, Le potager dates from a decisive year in Sisley’s career, during which the artist’s Impressionist style emerged. Capturing the quiet charm of a domestic country garden bathed in rich, golden light, Le potager exudes a picturesque tranquillity, demonstrating Sisley’s ability at transforming transient and rustic scenes of everyday life into picturesque and timeless paintings.
In the 1860s, Sisley had studied alongside Monet, Renoir and Frédéric Bazille in Paris in the studio of Swiss painter, Charles Gleyre. The friendships Sisley forged with these artists would remain central throughout his life. By the middle of the decade, this group of artists was painting near the forest of Fontainebleau, inspired by the Barbizon school of painters that preceded them. The Franco-Prussian war and subsequent Siege and Commune of Paris interrupted this fruitful artistic union. While Monet fled to London, and Renoir and Bazille enlisted in the army, Sisley was forced to leave his home in the Prussian-occupied town of Bougival, losing all his possessions, including many of his canvases.
After the war, in 1872, Sisley began once more to make expeditions into the suburbs of Paris, and towards the end of this year, the artist and his family moved to the small hamlet of Voisins on the outskirts of Louveciennes. Situated to the west of Paris, near to Argenteuil and Bougival, Louveciennes retained a distinctly rural air in contrast to the increasingly industrialised neighbouring towns. The artist rented a house bordered on one side by the grounds of a château, and on the other, by cottages, orchards and vegetable gardens. It was here, amidst the picturesque array of towns and villages that followed the meandering path of the Seine, that Sisley found his ideal landscape. His move generated an artistic resurgence, with an abundant outpouring of paintings devoted to this area of the French countryside. Characterised by a freshness and vitality previously unseen in Sisley’s work, paintings from this year, such as Le potager, demonstrate Sisley’s fascination for this verdant countryside. The intimacy with which he renders his paintings of the area, capturing the changing seasons and depicting quiet orchards, empty pathways and scenes along the riverbank, is a reflection of his great affinity and love for this corner of France. The landscape of the Île-de-France remained the most persistent and central subject of Sisley’s career, definitively shaping his artistic expression.
In moving out of Paris to Louveciennes, Sisley was not alone. Monet had moved to nearby Argenteuil in late 1871, while Pissarro, Renoir, Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot were all spending time in the surrounding area. It was among these small suburban towns that the Impressionists, often working en plein air, depicted their surroundings with new formal techniques: they used bright, often unmixed colour applied directly to the canvas with broken and varied brushstrokes, focusing particularly on the depiction of the atmosphere of the landscape, capturing the fleeting and transient effects of light. At this time these artists worked together closely, regularly visiting each other and sharing artistic ideas and developments. These years witnessed the flowering of Impressionism as an artistic movement, resulting in the first group Impressionist exhibition of 1874, of which Sisley was a founding member. The early 1870s was therefore a definitive period in the development of Impressionism, as Paul Hayes Tucker has written, ‘… Sisley, Renoir, Manet, and Caillebotte, painting in and around Argenteuil, created some of the most novel canvases of their careers. Combined with Monet’s achievements, their paintings constitute one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of art…’ (P.H. Tucker, The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14).
Presenting a scene of a domestic, kitchen garden, Le potager embodies the central principles of Sisley’s early Impressionist style. The art critic Lionello Venturi surmised of the artist’s work: ‘Within the general tendencies of the [Impressionist] group, Sisley expresses his personality by his gracefulness, the softness of his colours, the serenity of his vision, the intimate nature of his expression. He is closer to Corot, not because of any pictorial elements, but because of his soul. […] A series of masterpieces, equalled though not surpassed by those that followed, dates from 1872.’ (L. Venturi, quoted in D. Brachlianoff, ‘Argenteuil, Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Louveciennes, Bougival (1870-74)’ in Sisley: Poeta del Impresionismo, exh. cat., Madrid, 2002, p. 407).
Flooded with natural light, the scene radiates a rich luminosity, heightened by the dark shadow that is cast over half of the foreground of the painting, a reflection of the artist’s interest in the ephemeral effect of light on the landscape. Sisley rendered the carefully cultivated bed of flowers and vegetables and the verdant vegetation that surrounds the garden with small, stippled brushstrokes, a technique that suggests a spontaneity or rapidity of execution. The composition is however, carefully arranged, structured by the plunging perspective rendered by the diagonal line of the wall that borders the garden, and the path that runs alongside it, as well as the horizontal line of the greenhouse that flanks the scene. The lean-to on the right hand side of the composition acts as a repoussoir, leading the viewer’s eye into the scene, following the path that leads round the garden, to the white houses in the distance. This acute sense of pictorial organisation would remain a defining aspect of Sisley’s painting throughout his career.
It was through Monet and Pissarro that Sisley was introduced to the daring Impressionist art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. In 1872, the year that Le potager was painted, Durand-Ruel bought 25 paintings directly from Sisley, and later in the year, the dealer exhibited a group of Sisley’s paintings in London. Recognising Sisley’s contribution to the development of Impressionism, the dealer continued to buy the artist’s work for many years, remarking that the artist, ‘expressed his personality through charm, the gentle use of colour, his serenity of vision and depth of expression’ (P. Durand-Ruel, quoted in R. Shone, Sisley, London, 1992, p. 62). Durand-Ruel bought Le potager in 1890, and exhibited it in his gallery in New York in the early 1900s. Since it was painted, Le potager has resided in just two private collections, making this a rarely seen painting within Sisley’s oeuvre.