During the first fifteen years of his career as a painter, Sisley lived and worked in a succession of towns west of Paris in the lush valley of the Seine, including Bougival, Louveciennes, Marly-le-Roi, and Sèvres. In January 1880, a time of dire financial straits for many of the Impressionists, Sisley left the Paris suburbs for the more rural region near the confluence of the Seine and Loing, about seventy-five kilometers southeast of the capital. He settled initially at Veneux-Nadon on the left bank of the Loing, in a house just a few minutes' walk from the railway station. In the fall of 1882, he moved about three miles southeast, to the picturesque, medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing (fig. 1), which he extolled in a letter to Monet: "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?" (quoted in Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1992, p. 184). Sisley stayed at Moret, however, for only a year before returning to Veneux-Nadon and the adjacent hamlet of Les Sablons, where his principal subject was the quays and waterways at Saint-Mammès, a bustling river-port that occupies the right angle formed by the banks of the Seine and the Loing. In 1889, he relocated once again to Moret, which would remain his home, and almost the exclusive subject of his art, until his death a decade later.
Moret provided Sisley with a rich array of artistic motifs, from the medieval church and historic stone bridge to the grand avenues of poplars and humble wash-houses on the banks of the Loing. In the later 1870s, he had experimented with the creation of small sequences of paintings, depicting the same subject from different viewpoints and under changing conditions, and this nascent serial procedure became more systematic and pronounced first at Saint-Mammès and even more so at Moret. From 1888 onward, Sisley recorded the town of Moret and the adjacent sweep of the Loing from every possible angle, often returning to the exact same spot over a period of weeks or months and painting sequences of two, three, or four canvases with just the slightest shift in viewpoint. Sylvie Patin and Christopher Lloyd have written, "It was in these closing two decades of his life that Sisley's concern to provide visual maps of the locations in which he lived or worked is most coherently realized. This can be seen not only in his shifting angle of vision along the riverbank at Saint-Mammès, but also, more impressively, in the circular panorama made of Moret-sur-Loing, from its bridge to its gatehouse, riverbank, wash-house and avenue of poplar trees... It is in his numerous canvases of the town of Moret-sur-Loing that Sisley demonstrates a consistency of purpose and eye that can stand a proper comparison with Monet's output" (exh. cat., op. cit., London, 1992, pp. 24-25 and 183-184).
In the present painting, Sisley has set up his easel on one of the paths along the riverbank near Moret, with a stately allée of poplars on the left and the Loing just barely visible in the distance through the screen of trees. There is no sign of the town center itself, however, suggesting that we may be standing on the right bank of the Loing looking downstream, away from Moret; on the opposite side of the river would be the wash-house that Sisley painted on several occasions (compare figs. 2-3). The receding diagonals of the path, punctuated by the evenly spaced, rigorously vertical tree trunks, lead the eye gently into depth, while the towering height of the poplars, extending even beyond the upper edge of the canvas, counters Sisley's characteristically low horizon line. The highly structured composition is balanced by the freshness of the execution, particularly in the free play of leaves against the summer sky and the dappled pools of white light that spill onto the grassy path.
With their strict linearity and intrinsic decorative elegance, poplar trees were a favored artistic motif for both Sisley and Monet; the latter began his series of twenty-four views of poplars on the bank of the Epte in the spring of 1891, just a year after Sisley painted the present canvas (Wildenstein, nos. 1291-1313). A well-known feature of the French countryside, poplars were often placed along rural roads and at the entrances of estates. They were used as windshields for tilled fields and as a form of fencing to demarcate property lines, and were planted along the banks of rivers to diminish the possibility of flooding. Moreover, the poplar tree had been deemed the tree of liberty after the French Revolution, possibly because of the derivation of the name from the Latin populus, meaning both "people" and "popular." By 1793, sixty thousand poplars had been planted in France and hundreds of broadsides issued featuring the tree as the symbol of the new republic. Ceremonial plantings continued in France throughout the nineteenth century, especially on the hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1889--the year before Sisley painted the present canvas. Even during Sisley's lifetime, critics praised the artist's affinity for trees, particularly "the poplar, in all its nobility, with its pyramidal tip, like a thought that takes wing towards the skies" (L. Roger-Miles, Exposition A. Sisley, exh. cat., Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1897; quoted in ibid., p. 212).
The first owner of the present painting was Paul Gallimard, a wealthy bibliophile, theater owner, and prominent collector of Impressionism, whose eldest son Gaston founded the publishing house that still bears the family name. Gallimard began by collecting the work of the Symbolist painter Eugène Carrière, but upon being introduced to Impressionism at a dinner in 1889 in honor of Monet and Rodin, he was quickly converted to the New Painting. He purchased his first canvas by Renoir that December (Baigneuse blonde II, 1882) and commissioned the painter two years later to make a portrait of his wife Lucie Duché; he was among the earliest purchasers of Monet's Meules (Wheatstacks) of 1890-1891 and began to buy work by Pissarro around the same time. His collection would eventually number over two hundred paintings; as Colin Bailey has written, "Of the second generation of collectors who discovered Impressionism in the 1890s, none was more wholehearted in his enthusiasms than Paul Gallimard" (Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1997, p. 217).
(fig. 1) Moret-sur-Loing.
(fig. 2) Alfred Sisley, Le Lavoir à Moret, éte de la Saint-Martin, dimanche après-midi, 1888. Private collection.
(fig. 3) Alfred Sisley, Moret, bords du Loing, 1892. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.