By the end of the 1860s, the village of Bougival, situated on the banks of the Seine, seventeen kilometers from Paris, between Port Marly and Chatou, had become a popular tourist resort for Parisians desiring an easy escape from the modern metropolis. Unlike other suburbs such as Asnières, which were located closer to Paris and were increasingly engulfed by the city's rapid development, the area around Bougival retained reminders of the regions' history. A number of seventeenth and eighteenth century châteaux still existed in the vicinity. Among them were the famous waterworks between Port Marly and Bougival. The aqueduct that still carried water from the Seine to the grounds of the Château de Marly had once supplied the fountains and aquatic spectacles at Louis XIV's Château de Versailles, and the impressive pumping station at Bougival, modernized by Napoleon III in 1855-1859 and included in many of Sisley's paintings, demonstrated the continual permeation of past and present.
During the same period, this area became an increasingly attractive site for artists, many of whom were drawn there by its idyllic landscape. Characterized by traditional small-scale industries and picturesque clusters of buildings along its banks, Bougival and the surrounding villages preserved many of the features described by the painter Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun, who had settled in the area earlier in the century:
. . . by this spacious view that unfolds, as the eye follows the long course of the Seine, by the splendid woods at Marly and the delightful orchards, so well tended you could believe yourself in the Promised Land; in short, by everything about Louveciennes, one of the most charming places on the outskirts of Paris (quoted in R. Shone, Sisley, New York, 1992, p. 54).
Camille Pissarro moved to nearby Louveciennes in the spring of 1869 and remained there until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War the following year, returning intermittently after 1871. Claude Monet came to the village of Saint-Michel just north of Bougival for the summer of 1869, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent the same period in Louveciennes. Morisot frequented Louveciennes from 1881 to 1884, painting views of the river and village as well as of her husband and daughter in the garden of their rented house. All of these artists were essentially transient visitors to thes area. It was Sisley who relocated to Louveciennes in 1872 after the departures of his fellow Impressionists and developed the sincerest devotion to the district and the river, which provided the primary subject matter for paintings.
The Seine was the main thoroughfare between Paris and the English Channel, and, as such, it facilitated both commercial and recreational transit, serving barges and steam passenger boats, yachts and rowing boats alike. Pissarro's painting La Lavoire à Bougival (fig. 1) documents the traffic and travelers on the river, and Renoir and Monet's almost identical depictions of the La Grenouillère (National Gallery, London; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) similarly record establishments for visitors. Most of Sisley's scenes of Bougival and the surrounding area eschew such prevalent elements of trade and leisure, concentrating instead on the tranquility of the landscape. The signs of human activity in the present painting are minimal. The almost panoramic view of the expansive water and sky dwarfs the few intervening figures, the fisherman on the river and the spectators on the banks and beneath the trees.
Sisley's canvases of the early 1870s are quintessentially Impressionist in their compositional procedure, style, and subject matter. While the facture of broken brushstokes, applications of pure color, and the studies en plein air are particularly evident in paintings like the present work, Sisley's early canavses also exhibit the studied spontaneity characteristic of Impressionist painting. Christopher Lloyd writes that the "marks themselves are varied, [but] the visual effect is one of evenness. Similarly, the tonality of these paintings is satisfyingly bright . . . " (C. Lloyd, "Alfred Sisley and the Purity of Vision," Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 13). This apparent uniformity in Sisley's painting was nonetheless spontaneous, deriving from the artist's immediate reaction to a specific scene. Sisley made very few preparatory drawings or studies. Instead, he seems to have painted directly on the canvas throughout his career, giving his compositions the necessary degree of finish in front of his subject and making relatively few revisions in the studio. Sisley outlined the forms directly on the primed canvas in either black chalk or blue paint, and as Mary Anne Stevens asserts, the paintings of the early 1870s especially ". . .illustrate Sisley's consolidation of his various sources of influence into a personal style in which the fleeting moment of time within a landscape is caught through overlapping layers of subtly gradated tones of greens, greys, and blues applied with a soft-edge, square-cut brush" (M.A. Stevens, op. cit., p. 78).
The predominance of the sky and the reflections in the river in the present work evidence Sisley's interest in the effects of changing atmospheric conditions on this particular landscape. The artist painted this stretch of relatively unspoiled nature along the banks of the Seine at Bougival during different times of the year, in high summer (fig. 2) and in the fall, the season depicted in the present work. As Daulte claims, "Sisley loved above all to paint the Seine, flowing calmly past within its leafy banks. He was a painter of water-fluid, opaque, moving yet still . . . It was probably during this period, between 1872 and 1874, that Sisley painted his most sensitive and finest pictures" (F. Daulte, quoted in the exh. cat, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., op. cit., pp. 11-12). In the present work, the Seine dominates the foreground of the composition. The strong horizontals in the expansive water and sky combine with the linear rhythm of the trees on both banks to create a dynamic asymmetry within the painting. Here, Sisley has adopted a most direct solution to the problem of spatial recession, using the gentle curve of a river to create a line receding into depth, an approach characteristic of his works during this period. As Christopher Lloyd notes;
The group of paintings by Sisley dating from the 1870s are subject to the strictest pictorial organisation. It is this compositional aspect, in addition to their facture, that makes these paintings, in comparison with landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School, specifically modern. Sisley incorporates an almost relentless array of horizontals, verticals and diagonals deployed as plunging perspectives and flat bands of planar divisions . . . Yet, Sisley, more so in many cases than even Pissarro and Monet, was more radical than any of his sources, since he seeks to bring order to a world in an ever increasing state of flux. The depiction of modernity was best served by a resolute style derived from astute visual analysis and confident technique (C. Lloyd, op. cit., pp. 14-15).
Sisley has long been recognized as a pre-emininent landscape painter, often in statements that conflate the personalities of the artist and the landscape, as demonstrated by Théodore Duret's assertion that Sisley's paintings express "the smiling mood of nature" (ibid., p. 7) and Durand-Ruel's comment after the First Impressionist exhibition that Sisley "expresses his personality through charm, the gentle use of color, his serenity of vision and depth of expression" (quoted in R. Shone, op. cit., p. 62). Fellow Impressionist Pissarro described Sisley as "a great and beautiful artist, in my opinion he is a master equal to the greatest." When Matisse asked Pissarro "What is an Impressionist?" he replied: "An impressionist is a painter who never paints the same picture, who always paints a new picture... Cézanne is not an impressionist painter because all his life he has been painting the same picture. He has never painted sunlight, he always paints grey weather." Pissarro's response prompted Matisse's final question, "Who is a typical impressionist?", to which Pissarro made only one reply--Sisley" (quoted in C. Lloyd, op. cit., p. 8). This exchange, which clearly reinforces Pissarro's admiration for his contemporary and his praise, in particular, for Sisley's landscapes, may have provoked Matisse's later, definitive declaration: "A Cézanne is a moment of the artist while a Sisley is a moment of nature" (quoted in A. M. Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public, New York, 1966, p. 38).
(fig. 1) Camille Pissarro, Le Lavoire à Bougival (The Wash House at Bougival), 1872, collection Musée d' Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 2) Alfred Sisley, La Seine à Bougival, 1872-1873. Musée d' Orsay, Paris.