‘It is at Moret,’ Sisley wrote to the critic Adolphe Tavernier in 1892, ‘in this thickly wooded countryside with its tall poplars, the waters of the river Loing here, so beautiful, so translucent, so changeable; at Moret my art has undoubtedly developed the most. I will never really leave this little place that is so picturesque’ (Sisley, quoted in R. Shone, Sisley, London, 1992, p. 123).
The present painting is a veritable manifesto for the natural charms and pictorial possibilities that Moret – the quaint, medieval town that Sisley extolled with such emotion – bestowed upon the Impressionist painter during the final decade of his career. The foreground of the scene is given over to the silvery waters of the Loing, replete with dancing reflections; a grassy wedge at the bottom left inscribes the artist’s engagement with the lively landscape, marking out the spot where he stood on the bank to paint. The architecture of Moret unfurls in a narrow band in the middle distance. The graceful arches of the town’s stone bridge mark out a regular rhythm across the left side of the composition, interrupted midway by the Provencher mill; on the right, the dense screen of poplar trees accelerates the cadence, their slender trunks reflected in the river and their bushy crowns, tinged with orange and gold, silhouetted against the expansive sky. Diagonal banks of cirrus cloud, rendered with heavy impasto and a vigorous stroke, lend the sky depth, while streaks of lavender and rose tinge a valedictory flash of radiance nearing the close of day.
‘These supremely picturesque aspects of Moret left Sisley unabashed,’ Richard Shone has written. ‘Gathered in one spot were the motifs that had mesmerised him since he began to paint. ‘Here were water, sky, reflections, a busy riverside; the multi-arched bridge was for the artist the last in a long line of such structures going back through Sèvres and St-Cloud and Hampton Court to Argenteuil and Villeneuve-la-Garenne. Here was that conjunction of man-made and natural, the interleaving of foliage and house fronts between sky and water, that marked Sisley’s first Impressionist canvases on the Canal St-Martin’ (R. Shone, Sisley, London, 1992, p. 159).
Sisley moved from the Paris suburbs to the more remote and affordable region of Moret – about seventy-five miles southeast of the capital, near the confluence of the Seine and the Loing – in January 1880, a time of dire financial straits for many of the Impressionists. With his partner Eugénie and their children Pierre and Jeanne, then aged twelve and ten, he initially leased a house at Veneux-Nadon, just a few minutes’ walk from the railway station. In the autumn of 1882, he moved about two miles away to Moret, which he described enthusiastically in a letter to Monet, then house-hunting as well: ‘Moret is just two hours journey from Paris, and has plenty of places to let at six hundred to a thousand francs. There is a market once a week, a pretty church, and beautiful scenery round about. If you were thinking of moving, why not come and see?’ (Sisley, quoted in Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 184).
Sisley stayed at Moret for only a year on this occasion, before returning to Veneux-Nadon and the neighbouring hamlet of Les Sablons. In 1889, however, he re-located once again to Moret, which would remain his home – and almost the exclusive subject of his art – until his death a decade later. ‘Sisley had found his country,’ the critic Gustave Geffroy later declared (G. Geffroy, quoted in ibid., p. 183).
Although the artist painted within the walls of Moret only intermittently, he captured the view across the Loing toward the town from every possible angle, shifting his vantage point or simply adjusting his sight line to create a veritable visual map of the site. ‘To capture the town and its distinctive poplar-lined riverbanks, he adopted an almost cinematic approach, taking up positions that enabled him to circle through 360 degrees,’ MaryAnne Stevens has written. ‘It is this exploration of place through multiple viewpoints that shows Sisley to be as innovative an artist as Monet. Rather than mimicking the other Impressionist’s series paintings embarked upon from the late 1880s, Sisley forged his own response to the need to find stability within his compositions by approaching his motif in a linked, serial mode’ (MA. Stevens, Alfred Sisley, Impressionist Master, exh. cat., Greenwich, Connecticut, 2017, p. 162).
To paint the present canvas, Sisley set up his easel on the right bank of the Loing immediately downstream from Moret, looking south-west across the river toward the historic centre of the town. It was a bright, blustery day in mid-autumn, and the artist would have reached the site after a brisk, twenty-minute walk from his home on the Avenue de Fontainebleau in Veneux-Nadon. From this vantage point, the two most prominent landmarks in Moret – the pinnacled Gothic church and the towering Porte de Bourgogne, the town gate – were screened by the line of poplars along the embankment, enabling Sisley to focus without distraction on the more ephemeral and poetic qualities of his chosen motif. The sun has dipped low as the day draws to a close, and only the stand of trees at the far left of the scene still catches its golden glow. The poplars are backlit against the luminous plane of the sky, while the architecture of Moret is momentarily transfigured by the late-afternoon light, the age-old stones coloured violet and mauve. ‘More tender, more melancholic,’ Sisley described this time of day. ‘It has the charm of things that disappear – I am particularly fond of it' (Sisley, quoted in ibid., 152).
Following his move to the region of Moret, Sisley travelled back to Paris only rarely, preferring the quiet simplicity of life in this rural enclave where he could work steadily and in solitude. Although he contributed to the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882, he opted out of the final group show four years later, where Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist studio production, La Grande Jatte, was the succès de scandale. Nonetheless, Sisley corresponded with both Monet and Pissarro – the latter a committed advocate from 1886 until 1889 of Seurat’s controversial new methods – and was well aware of the most recent developments in modern art. Although he remained a steadfast proponent of plein air painting, true to his Impressionist roots, Sisley experimented during the later 1880s with heightened colour contrasts and a more varied, purposeful application of paint, seeking to lend greater structure to his descriptions of transient effects.
‘These paintings show him at the height of his powers,’ Christopher Lloyd has written. ‘All the experience of the previous decades was blended in these canvases which amount to the summation of his output: the paint is richly applied with the impasto more pronounced than in previous works, the brushwork more insistently rhythmical, the execution more rapid, and the colours more vibrant’ (C. Lloyd, op. cit., 1992, p. 25).
In Moret au coucher du soleil, Sisley’s revitalised, robust technique belies an intense absorption with the landscape. He used carefully differentiated zones of brushwork to analyse the various sections of the scene, evoking depth through a subtle layering of planes. The cubic buildings are rendered in broad, dry strokes; a lively, flickering touch describes both the reedy bank and the poplar foliage, drawing the viewer’s eye diagonally across the canvas from one to the other and back again. Particularly noteworthy is the heavily loaded brush that Sisley enlisted to describe the banks of cloud, lending a dense materiality to the sky. ‘The sky must be the medium, the sky cannot be a mere backdrop,’ he explained to Tavernier. ‘Not only does it give the picture depth through its successive planes (for the sky, like the ground, has its planes), but through its form, and through its relations with the whole effect or with the composition of the picture, it gives movement… I always begin by painting the sky’ (Sisley, quoted in op. cit., 2017, p. 154).
The first owner of this exquisite landscape was Jean-Baptiste Faure, a legendary baritone in the Paris Opéra and an important patron of the Impressionists in their early days, when their revolutionary modern mode of painting was still viewed as a shocking affront to tradition. Faure began to collect art in the 1860s, at first purchasing paintings by Corot, Delacroix, Millet, and Rousseau. In 1873, however, he sold his entire collection of Barbizon paintings at auction and began to focus his collecting activities exclusively on Impressionism – the ‘New Painting’. The following year, Faure invited Sisley to accompany him on a three-month trip to England, where he had singing engagements; the baritone paid for all of Sisley’s expenses in exchange for six landscapes produced during their stay. By the 1890s, Faure had acquired around sixty canvases by Sisley, a like number each by Manet and Monet, some two dozen by Pissarro, and at least ten by Degas. His collection included some of these artists’ greatest masterpieces, including Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe; Manet, in turn, paid tribute to Faure with a full-length portrait showing him in the venerable role of Hamlet.
Faure loaned the present canvas, likely at Sisley’s request, to a major retrospective of the artist’s work at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1897. The exhibition, which comprised 146 paintings from all periods of Sisley’s career, opened on 5 February, just two days before Caillebotte’s controversial bequest of Impressionist paintings – including six by Sisley – went on view at the Musée du Luxembourg, France’s national museum for living artists. Although Faure sold various Impressionist paintings during his lifetime, he kept the present canvas for himself until his death in 1914, when it passed to the wife of his son Maurice.