In 1889 Sisley settled in Moret-sur-Loing, a picturesque village about twenty-five miles southeast of Paris. The tranquil and simple surroundings of the village--the banks and canals of the river Loing, the medieval bridges, the Gothic church--would provide endless inspiration and subject matter for the artist during the last decade of his life. In a letter written to a friend in January 1892, Sisley himself proclaimed that the region of Moret-sur-Loing was indeed the source of his best and personally most significant work.
Sisley's biographer Gustave Geffroy expressed the enchanting beauty of Moret-sur-Loing, in a description that could justly be applied to the present painting: "Here are the banks of the Loing: willows and poplars; mornings as fair as the youth of the world itself; dew evaporating in a golden halo around feathery treetops; the blue shade of a village; boats tilted on the river bank; cottages illumined like fairytale palaces; white light and mauve light; the silvery leaves of willows, shivering in a fresh breeze" (G. Geffroy, "Sisley," Les Cahiers d'Aujourd'hui, Paris, 1923, p. 16).
Sisley was so taken with the area that he wrote to his dear friend Monet, "Moret is just two hours 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?" (quoted in M. Stevens, Alfred Sisley, London, 1992, p. 184).
Like Monet, Sisley was extremely interested in painting sequences of the same subject matter, prolifically documenting the fleeting effects of light, times of day, and changes of season of a particular location. Sisley's series of paintings of the church at Moret-sur-Loing in 1893-1894 (Daulte nos. 818-822 and 834-840) were directly influenced by Monet's Rouen Cathedral series. In the 1890s, in order to focus on the fugitive effects of nature, Sisley dedicated his work to a limited range of motifs, mostly at Saint-Mammès and Moret-sur-Loing. In Soleil de printemps - Le Loing, Sisley imparts the clarity of azure skies, a gentle breeze along the riverbank, resplendent sunlight, and the fresh bloom of a spring day, through attenuated brushstrokes of dazzling colors.
The towering row of poplar trees along the right side of the canvas and the lush row of willow trees along the left side recede together toward the center of the canvas, drawing the viewer in toward the riverbank, as if to join the lone elegant woman who is gazing reflectively at the water. The painting consists of a series of diagonals converging toward the low horizon line where the river meets the vast blue sky, creating a classical and balanced composition. Sisley often employed this classical approach to spatial recession in his paintings, demonstrating his commitment to traditional French landscape painting, particularly the influence of the Barbizon painters. In fact, when asked in the 1890s which artists he admired most, Sisley named Corot, Millet, and Rousseau, among other notable French landscape painters (J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, p. 576).
Not only does Soleil de printemps - le Loing epitomize Sisley's fascination with the region of Moret-sur-Loing and the ceaseless inspiration the environs offered him during what he deemed the best period of his work, the painting tells a remarkable story of restitution.
Soleil de printemps- le Loing, recently restituted to the heirs of the Hirsch family, had vanished without a trace during the German Occupation of Paris. The tale of its confiscation, and indeed its return to its rightful owners, is rife with perseverance, frustration, coincidence, luck, and ultimately justice. In 1939, with the German Occupation of Paris looming, Mrs. Louis Hirsch placed the majority of her art, furniture and other precious belongings in a safe at the Banque de France. Having forgotten the present work, as well as a second Sisley painting, Le Port de Moret, in the family's home in the countryside, it was not until a year later that she brought them to Paris, handing over both works for safekeeping to the Argentinean Ambassador of France, a trusted friend.
In 1942 the German Occupation Army, in conjunction with the French Vichy government, took over the Embassy of Argentina on the premise that the Argentine government had not paid for the building before the war. Thus the embassy was still considered property of the French government. In stormed the Gestapo, and the two Sisley paintings disappeared from the walls.
In 1990, having learned of the missing Hirsch family Sisley paintings during a lunch with Baron de Gunzburg the year prior, Jacques Durand-Ruel came across one of the works, Soleil de printemps - Le Loing, in a 1985 Japanese exhibition catalogue. The Baron de Gunzburg tried without success, through diplomatic means, to obtain the name of the lender from the Japanese curators, and also contacted through Interpole the Public Prosecutor in Tokyo, both of whom refused to answer. In 1999, a formal legal complaint was filed with the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris.
In 2000, through the formal legal complaint, Baron de Gunzburg learned that the owners had tried to sell the painting privately in 1998. However, the potential purchaser discovered the Hirsch family's ownership claim and all sale discussions abruptly ended and the painting was returned to Japan. Rigorous legal tactics to obtain the painting were ongoing, when earlier this year, the French courts and the French Foreign Ministry of Affairs suddenly informed Baron de Gunzburg that the owners had decided to turn over the painting on 15 March 2004 to the French Embassy in Tokyo. After a twenty-four year search, the painting was rightfully transferred to Baron de Gunzburg at the French Embassy in Tokyo.
The provenance of this work is notable: Mr. Louis Hirsch, of the Banque Louis Hirsch in Paris, was a great collector of fine art and furniture. On 8 May 1900, he purchased Soleil de printemps - le Loing at the Eugène Blot sale at the Hôtel Drouot. Blot was a great connoisseur of Impressionist paintings, whose collection included works by Gauguin, Renoir and Sisley. Five Sisley paintings were sold that day, of which the highest price obtained was for Soleil de printemps - le Loing at 11,600 French francs.
(fig. 1) Alfred Sisley in 1882.
(fig. 2) View of Moret in 1892.