Alfred Sisley painted this river scene within walking distance of the house in which he briefly lived in Marly-le-Roi, a western suburb of Paris. Concentrating almost exclusively on landscape throughout his career, Sisley never developed a dedicated following among critics or patrons associated with Impressionism. Perhaps this was because he resisted portraying bourgeois leisure activities, preferring instead to record the routine tasks of local inhabitants in their rustic environs. Sisley’s focus on labor, as seen in The Seine at Port-Marly: Piles of Sand, distinguishes his work from that of his artist colleagues such as Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir, who often depicted rivers as sites for pleasure boating.
The subject of this canvas is the dredging of sand from the bottom of the Seine in order to permit the passage of large, heavy barges between the port city of Le Havre and Paris. Standing in small boats, workers lower buckets into the water. The sand they collect was then massed on the riverbank, in piles such as those at the lower left, and sold to building contractors and gardeners. Two slender poles at the lower right, used by the laborers as moorings, anchor the composition.
While living in Marly-le-Roi, Sisley dramatically increased his artistic productivity and developed his mature Impressionist style, which is distinguished by a high-keyed, harmonious palette and skillfully balanced but never overworked compositions. Here for example he sketched the trees across the river with only a bare minimum of strokes, and applied cool turquoise and aquamarine in the river so loosely as to reveal the primed canvas beneath. When Henri Matisse asked Camille Pissarro in 1902, "Who is a typical Impressionist?" Pissarro answered without hesitation, "Sisley."
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