The National Gallery has had some excellent free exhibitions this year, and this one is no exception. Sisley is frequently referred to as the English French Impressionist, though he was born and lived most of his life in France. This is a chance to see the work he did in Britain, though, mostly in later life, and it’s fascinating. He was hardly the most radical of the Impressionists, with none of the near-abstraction and little of the radical use of colours exhibited by others, but he’s still an interesting painter.
I began my visit by watching a film in the Sunley Cinema Room about the use of light and shade and complementary colours, based on scientific work contemporary with Sisley, which heightened my awareness, when looking at the paintings, of his observation of light and shade, the shimmering light and deep, obscure shadows. This observation is part of the Impressionist interest in “reproducing nature with exactitude” – yet not in a Pre-Raphaelite “truth to nature” way, with every brush-stroke perfect, but rather reproducing their impressions of nature exactly.
Something I especially liked about Sisley’s paintings is how they draw the eye and seem to invite you in – so often one finds oneself looking down a road, or through a bridge, or a path to a river, particularly in his London pictures. The eye is clearly directed in Sisley’s work – a trait I seem to recall is one many of the Impressionists share. In the Welsh sea-scapes, however, there seems to be more abstraction, of subject rather than style, especially in those of rocks, such as Storr Rock, Lady’s Cove, Evening, 1897, above. In it, there is a tiny figure standing beside the rock, dwarfed by its size and almost irrelevant against the forces of nature – a traditional idea represented in a modern way.