Celebrating the picturesque charm of a provincial village’s riverbank, Le Loing à Saint–Mammès is a remarkable expression of Alfred Sisley’s fascination for the quiet meanderings of the Seine’s tributaries across the towns and countryside of the Île de France. Capturing something fundamental of the region’s character, Le Loing à Saint–Mammès belongs to a series of landscapes Sisley executed in the early 1880s, which marked the last significant development of his career as an Impressionist painter. In the present picture, Sisley rested his eye on a place where a landscape shaped by men and nature’s wilderness encounter each other: extending towards the vanishing point of the painting’s perspective is the line where the edge of a village meets the wild bank of the river. Nature, however, dominates the scene: the sheer beauty of the luminous expanse of clouds over the water and the golden trees rising over the shore envelops the scene, subduing any human presence to its power.
Le Loing à Saint–Mammès was painted in 1883, at a time when Sisley was living in the region he portrayed. The artist had moved there in 1880, leaving the west of the Parisian suburbs to settle in the south, two hours by train away from the capital. The artist first took a place in Veneux-Nadon, a small village bordering the railway connecting Lyon to Paris. In autumn 1882, however, Sisley moved to Moret-sur-Loing, a neighbouring town built across the river Loing. By following the river north, one reached Saint-Mammès, a town wedged between the rivers of the Loing and the Seine. It was there, in fact, that the smaller river joined the Seine, providing the artist with a stimulating subject that he would indeed paint several times, from different perspectives and under different weather and light conditions. Sisley was very satisfied with his new setup: in 1882, shortly after his move, the artist wrote to Claude Monet, ‘It’s not a bad part of the world, a chocolatebox landscape… Moret is two hours away from Paris, with plenty of houses to rent… Market once a week, very pretty church, some quite picturesque views…’ (quoted in S. Patin, ‘Veneux-Nadon and Moret-sur-Loing: 1880-1899’, pp. 183-187, in Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 184). A decade later, the artist would indeed affirm that it was in Moret that he produced his best and most significant works (M. Stevens, ‘The Environs of Moret-sur-Loing: By, Veneux-Nadon, Les Sablons, Saint-Mammès’, pp. 433-434, in Alfred Sisley: Poeta del Impresionismo, exh. cat., Madrid, 2002, p. 434, footnote 1).
Quiet life and enticing landscape, however, may have not been the only motives that encouraged Sisley to move to the area of Moret-sur-Loing. The region reconnected the artist to his own past, precisely with the beginning of his career as an Impressionist painter. It was there, bordering the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, that in the 1860s Sisley, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Frédéric Bazille had painted together, following the example of the painters of the School of Barbizon such as Théodore Rousseau and Charles Daubigny. Twenty years later, Sisley returned to that same scenery with renewed interest and ambition. The series of paintings he dedicated to the Loing and Saint-Mammès express a concern for geographical accuracy. In the early 1880s, Sisley appears to have portrayed the landscape around him, moving his easel progressively, to map out the course of the river from different perspectives. The wealth of depictions of the area traversed by the Loing suggests that, in the 1880s, Sisley had found a stimulating subject, which he captured working en plein air as he had first done two decades before, while pioneering Impressionist landscape.
While Sisley’s landscapes of the Moret-sur-Loing and Saint-Mammès region express a geographical interest on the part of the artist, they also convey a strong sense of artistic control. Despite the apparently simple and humble appearances of the scene, Le Loing à Saint–Mammès ultimately rests on a strictly constructed composition. Placing his easel on the Loing’s shore, Sisley made sure he captured the most balanced, eloquent view, imparting to the subject a particular strength and structure. The picture is centred on a wide diagonal, which, from the top of the trees to the edge of the river-bank, crosses the scene entirely. The two halves of the picture are harmoniously united through the use of complementary colours: to the blues, purples and violets of the sky and sea correspond the oranges, yellows and greens of the trees and land. The lower third of the composition, sitting below the horizon line, is carefully divided into three bands – the greenery, the shore and the river – all reaching towards a common vanishing point. Exactly there, a boat is casually placed near the shore, its red stern marking the compositional centre of the picture. Details such as this one would be added by the artist once the composition had been mapped out, in order to punctuate the overall structure of the landscape. The rigorous composition of Le Loing à Saint–Mammès illustrates how Sisley was able to combine an Impressionist sense of spontaneity with a more classical tradition of landscape painting, governed by a strict structure and balanced effects. Sisley must have been particularly pleased with the composition of Le Loing à Saint–Mammès for that same year he executed another very similar landscape, Le Remorqueur (Le Loing à Saint-Mammès), now held in the collection of the Musée du Petit-Palais in Paris.
Perhaps to better serve the structure of his landscapes, in the 1880s, Sisley began to diversify the character of his brushstrokes. The different planes of his pictures appear not only distinct in terms of spatial arrangements and tones, but also in texture. Le Loing à Saint–Mammès illustrates this technique: the dashes and dabs used by the artist to depict the towpath contrast with the creamier, longer brushstrokes used in the sky. Similarly, the dense and uniform texture of the paint of the water surface sits diametrically opposite the vibrant, small dots of paint that impart life to the trees’ leaves. Sisley’s exploration of the potential of fragmented and complementary small brushstrokes at the time may suggest that the artist was indeed familiar with and fascinated by the experiments of the Neo-Impressionists. In Le Loing à Saint–Mammès, one can find some purple dabs of paint embedded in the brown tones of the towpath, which enrich the overall light effect of the picture. The wealth of pictorial effects and textures in works such as Le Loing à Saint–Mammès illustrate Sisley’s mastery in commanding colour to describe not only nature and light effects, but also the mood and character of the various elements which compose a landscape.
At the time when Le Loing à Saint–Mammès was painted, Impressionism was experiencing a period of revision. In 1880, Émile Zola, an early champion of the movement, had published an article questioning whether Impressionism had failed to depict nature’s real truth in its one-minded pursuit of atmospheric, transient effects of light (Émile Zola, ‘Le Naturalisme au Salon’, in Le Voltaire, 18-22 June 1880, reprinted in G. Picon & J.P. Bouillon, eds., Le bon combat de Courbet aux Impressionnistes: Anthologies d’écrits sur l’art, Paris, 1974, pp. 209-221). Notwithstanding Zola’s criticism, in the 1880s Sisley remained a fervent exponent of Impressionism. He continued to paint in front of the motif, even when his health had become more fragile, defiant of the difficulties that this approach posed. In a letter to his friend Georges de Bellio, in 1883 he wrote: ‘The weather has been marvellous here. I have started work again. Unfortunately, because the spring is dry, the fruit trees flower one after the other and are over very soon, and I am hard at it! Life isn’t a bed of roses for a landscape painter. This morning the wind was so strong that I was forced to stop’ (quoted in R. Shone, Sisley, London, 1992 p. 157). He also remained a strong advocate of the importance of exhibiting as a group, a practice which the Impressionists had followed since the very beginning of the movement in 1874. When, in 1883, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley addressed the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel with the hope of an exhibition, Sisley alone insisted on a group exhibition, while his colleagues pleaded for a series of solo shows. Their wish eventually prevailed and, that same year, Sisley’s works and those of his fellow Impressionists were exhibited in a series of one-man shows at the dealer’s gallery. Three years later, the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition was held in rue Lafitte. As Impressionism was about to close its act in the 1880s, Sisley found in the region of Moret-sur-Loing and Saint-Mammès the landscape which most corresponded to his artistic vision and sensibility. Gustave Geoffroy, one of the earliest historians of Impressionism, wrote in his 1923 monograph on the artist: ‘Sisley… had found his country (…) the fringes of the Forest of Fontainebleau, the small towns strung out along the banks of the Seine and the Loing: Moret, Saint-Mammès and the rest…’ (quoted in S. Patin, op. cit., p. 183).