Pierre Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley had known each other for more than ten years, having met in the studio of Charles Gleyre in 1862, when Renoir executed this portrait. Although the two men were of different backgrounds—Sisley came from a middle-class family and had initially intended to join his father’s business, while Renoir, the son of a tailor and a dressmaker, had trained as an apprentice porcelain painter—they shared a passion for art. Renoir later recalled their student excursions to picturesque areas outside of Paris: "I would take my paint box and a shirt, and Sisley and I would leave Fontainebleau, and walk until we reached a village. Sometimes we did not come back until we had run out of money a week later."
In Renoir’s portrait, Sisley sits casually astride a bamboo chair, resting his head on his left hand, his eyes lowered and gently averted. The shallow, dark room is pierced only by a window at the upper right. Although the composition’s dominant tonality is blue, its mood is not melancholy; rather, Sisley appears thoughtful and serene, something of a dreamer. No clues, such as brushes or a palette, hint at his vocation, so perhaps Renoir intended to refer to his subject’s identity as an artist more indirectly, through his romantic characterization.
This was one of six portraits that Renoir sent to the third Impressionist exhibition, held in 1877. The work can be seen as a document of the two men’s shared aim, at this point in their careers, to achieve artistic success through avant-garde rather than official means, and of Renoir’s specific aspiration to become known as a portrait painter. More importantly, however, its affectionate quality makes it a representation of friendship.
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