The Road from Versailles to Saint-Germain

ArtistAlfred Sisley (British, 1839–1899)
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions51.1 x 65.1 cm (20 1/8 x 25 5/8 in.)
Accession Number99.PA.27
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English born but raised and active primarily in France, Alfred Sisley was one of the founding members of the independent exhibition society whose inaugural 1874 exhibition in Paris gave rise to the “Impressionist” moniker. While the work of fellow travelers Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Claude Monet (1840–1926), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) would later develop in notably divergent ways, the comparatively modest and unassuming Sisley remained arguably the most attached to the innovative landscape aesthetic that they collectively developed in the late 1860s and early 1870s in the suburban villages and surrounding countryside along the Seine river valley immediately to the west of Paris.

The Route de Versailles at Saint Germain is a classic Impressionist picture from those early years and represents Sisley at the height of his powers. Elsewhere, he would demonstrate his pioneering mastery of snow effects and confront the signs of modern urban-industrial civilization encroaching upon nature, but here his mood is decidedly cheery and his mode bucolic. Bright, clear colors and vigorous, wet-on-wet brushwork convey with vibrant immediacy the painter’s impression of a summertime scene basking in sunlight and breezily animated by buoyant masses of clouds, painted with fluid, looping strokes, scudding across a blue sky. The casual informality of the artist’s technique and chance aspect of his motif suggest a scene chosen spontaneously and painted on the spot — the painter pausing on a grassy rise by the side of the road to capture a particularly riant piece of nature. In his 1876 essay on Édouard Manet (1832–1883) and the Impressionists, French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) captured the spirit of such a picture: “Sisley seizes the passing moments of the day; watches a fugitive cloud and seems to paint it in its flight; on his canvass (sic) the live air moves and the leaves yet thrill and tremble.”1 Sisley himself wrote admiringly about the kind of atmospheric effect showcased in the Getty painting. In an autobiographical note penned in 1892, he enthused: “Is there anything more splendid or thrilling than that [effect] which is frequently found in summer, I mean the blue sky with beautiful clouds, white and drifting. What movement, what allure they have!”2

Behind the seeming spontaneity and informality of Sisley’s freshly observed scene nevertheless lies a rigorously conceived compositional structure. The picture divides into quadrants. In the neatly bisected upper register, a screen of trees, thick with foliage rendered with short dashes of green and yellow, closes the space and sets off the arching vault of the sky. If this framing device calls to mind the classical landscape tradition,3 the picture’s lower register playfully subverts that tradition. Rather than treat the trees as a repoussoir framing a deep vista beyond, Sisley excavates a shallow cavity of space beneath their low, rustling canopies, offering us a vignette of a road curving just in and out of view.4 On either side of the stoutest tree trunk bordering the road, we glimpse a lone figure strolling and a horse-drawn carriage teetering jauntily around the bend (Sisley’s remark that “there is always a favorite corner in every painting” might readily be applied here).5 Contained at lower left, this piece of road is not designed to lead our gaze on a meandering course throughout the fictive space of the painting, as picturesque convention might have it, but rather calls to mind the landscape beyond the frame, as if this were but one in an extendable sequence of views. In the lower right quadrant of the picture, Sisley counterbalances the plunging perspective down to the left by presenting an expanse of open hillside swelling upward. Seated by some low bushes near the foreground, a diminutive figure sits peacefully, back to the viewer, and functions as an imaginative surrogate for the painter himself, immersed contentedly in nature.

The interplay of sky, trees, road, and hill, translated by Sisley’s close-toned palette and lively brushwork, generates a subtle push-pull of surface and depth. Rather than offer us a commanding view over a coherently unified, deeply recessed space, Sisley effectively blocks our visual access to the horizon by placing a large mass of bushes in the center of the composition. On either side of it are twinned highlights splitting the viewer’s focus: the carriage passenger’s white umbrella and the yellow straw hat of the seated figure in our immediate line of sight.6 Further reinforcing the composition’s bifocal aspect is the related opposition of the curving piece of road and the roughly oval patch of ochre paint immediately adjacent to the seated figure. These two areas and the adjacent highlights of umbrella and hat are equalized spatially, as Sisley painted the more distant elements brightly and sharply so that they visually advance and toned down and softened the closer elements so that they effectively retreat.7 However tentative or last-minute Sisley’s staffage figures might appear (and he did typically paint them last), their placement is anything but casual.8 Indeed, they provide a key to the composition’s sophisticated spatial dynamics, luring us into depth while simultaneously dispersing our attention across the pictorial field, the artist’s painterly brushwork insisting everywhere upon its surface. “A canvas, you know, has more than one focus of interest,” Sisley would observe.9

Sisley’s painting was ultimately not the product of a fleeting, chance encounter with a site, but of a sustained engagement with a region that he made his home, both by choice and by necessity. Like his English forerunner John Constable (1776–1837), whose example had been so important to the modern school of French landscape painters since the 1820s, Sisley painted the landscape he inhabited.10 By the time he painted The Route de Versailles at Saint Germain in 1875, he had been living and working for a number of years on the western outskirts of Paris, where Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir were also producing groundbreaking work. Financial hardship had dictated that he find affordable accommodations for his common-law wife Marie Lescouezec (1834–1898) and their children Pierre (1867–1929) and Jeanne (1869–1919), whom he was solely responsible for supporting since his father’s commercial fortunes had collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871.11 By 1872, after the war and the ensuing debacle of the Paris Commune, he had settled with his family in Louveciennes, Pissarro’s adopted town since 1869 and home to the parents of Renoir, with whom Sisley worked closely in his early years.

It was around 1872 that Sisley’s landscape production, at least as it has survived, began in earnest.12 He found much needed support in the enterprising dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922), who bought many of his works in 1872 and 1873 and exhibited select pictures in his Paris and London galleries.13 But in 1874, Sisley’s sales to the dealer, like those of his fellow Impressionists, faltered because Durand-Ruel was underfunded and overstocked, not having been able to find many buyers.14 Nor had the first Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1874 done much to help Sisley’s fortunes. The six paintings he showed did not cause the uproar that some of the other artists’ works did, but neither did they attract as much attention,15 although one sympathetic critic extolled them for perfectly realizing “the physical sensation of the atmosphere, of the ‘open air.’”16 Momentary respite came soon afterwards, thanks to the famed opera singer and collector Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830–1914), who invited Sisley to accompany him for several months to England in exchange for some pictures, a trip that resulted in a sequence of landscapes painted at Hampton Court that is now celebrated as one of the great achievements of early Impressionism.17

Fig. 1. Alfred Sisley (British, 1839–1899), Watering-Place at Marly-le-Roi, 1875. Oil on canvas, 49.5 x 65.4 cm. London, National Gallery, NG4138
Fig. 1. Alfred Sisley (British, 1839–1899), Watering-Place at Marly-le-Roi, 1875. Oil on canvas, 49.5 x 65.4 cm. London, National Gallery, NG4138

Returning to France and to impecunious circumstance late in 1874, Sisley moved once again with his family, this time to Marly-le-Roi, just minutes away from Louveciennes. Over the winter of 1874–1875, Sisley stayed close to his new home and painted various quotidian aspects of the historic village (fig. 1).18 Come March, the downturn in support from Durand-Ruel finally compelled him, along with Monet and Renoir (and Berthe Morisot [1841–1895], who joined them out of solidarity rather than financial necessity), to hold a public auction of their work, an event that was disrupted by a jeering public and that amounted to a financial disaster for the artists. Twenty of the twenty-one paintings that Sisley offered sold for a total of 2445 francs, meaning the artist averaged little over one hundred francs per picture, despite the efforts of friends like the critic Théodore Duret (1838–1927), the painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894), and the collector Victor Chocquet (1821–1891) to bid prices up to respectable levels. Durand-Ruel, who bought twelve of Sisley’s works, ultimately seems to have been the main beneficiary of the sale, since he was able to snap up pictures at bargain rates.19 The notoriety of the 1875 auction, followed in 1876 by the heavily criticized second Impressionist exhibition, contributed greatly to Sisley’s deteriorating financial position, and he would continue to live in near-poverty for years to come, even after Durand-Ruel’s support resumed in 1880.20

Fig. 2. Environs de Paris dans un rayon de 30 kilomètres (Paris: E. Andriveau-Goujon, 1883)(detail). Lithographic map with hand coloring, 83 x 106.5 cm (unfolded). Cartes et plans anciens, Conseil départemental des Hauts-de-Seine. Image: (CC 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Fig. 3. Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), Route de Versailles, Louveciennes, Winter Sun and Snow, 1870. © Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

None of this hardship, however, seems to have affected the mood of his landscapes. With the arrival of nice weather in the spring and summer of 1875, he started venturing farther afield into the countryside surrounding Marly, as the present painting attests.21 If indeed the country road depicted here is the route de Versailles,22 then it was a road he already knew very well from his years in Louveciennes. Proceeding from Versailles in the south to Louveciennes, the thoroughfare then looped around Marly and continued northwest to St. Germain-en-Laye; it is possible that the painting depicts one of the pronounced bends in the road as it approaches the Seine (fig. 2). Painted by Monet and Pissarro before him (fig. 3),23 the route de Versailles features in a number of Sisley’s paintings from the early 1870s,24 and it also provided him with a convenient vantage point from which to depict such landmarks as the aqueduct at Marly, constructed in the seventeenth century as part of a complex project designed to deliver water from the Seine to Louis XIV’s royal parks at Marly and Versailles (fig. 4).25

Fig. 4. Alfred Sisley (British, 1839–-1899), The Aqueduct at Marly, 1874. Oil on canvas, 54.3 x 81.3 cm (21 3/8 x 32 in.). Toledo Museum of Art, 1951.371. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey
Fig. 4. Alfred Sisley (British, 1839–-1899), The Aqueduct at Marly, 1874. Oil on canvas, 54.3 x 81.3 cm (21 3/8 x 32 in.). Toledo Museum of Art, 1951.371. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey

Ultimately, the groundbreaking paintings Sisley produced in and around Louveciennes and Marly between 1872 and 1877 constitutes a sustained project of what MaryAnn Stevens has aptly called the “visual mapping” of his environment.26 In this respect, Sisley’s painting of the period bears close comparison to the important bodies of work that Monet produced in Argenteuil from 1872 to 1876, or that Pissarro painted in Pontoise starting in 1871. In 1877, driven again by a need to find cheaper accommodations, Sisley left Marly for nearby Sèvres, before moving for good in 1880 to Moret-sur-Loing, located southeast of Paris at the southern edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, that famous crucible of modern French landscape painting where Sisley and his Impressionist cohort had first cut their teeth in the 1860s.27 Sisley was once again returning to familiar terrain and it would prove more than enough to sustain his artistic interest for the rest of his career.

  • Scott C. Allan
    2013; revised June 2020

  1. Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet”[George T. Robinson, trans.], The Art Monthly Review and Photographic Portfolio 1, no. 9 (Sept. 30, 1876), repr. in The New Painting: Impressionism 18741886. Documentation. Volume I. Reviews, ed. Ruth Berson (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with University of Washington Press, 1996), pp. 95–96.
  2. “En est-il de plus magnifique et de plus mouvementé que celui qui se reproduit fréquemment en été, je veux parler du ciel bleu avec les beaux nuages blancs baladeurs. Quel mouvement, quelle allure, n’est-ce pas?” Cited by Adolphe Tavernier in his introduction to the catalogue of a 1907 exhibition of Sisley’s paintings at the Bernheim Jeune gallery in Paris, repr. in Richard Shone, Sisley (London: Phaidon, 1992), appendix C, p. 218 (English trans., p. 220).
  3. On the “classical” aspect of Sisley’s compositions, see Vincent Pomarède, “‘Tous ceux qui ont aimé la nature et qui ont senti fortement.’ Alfred Sisley, le rénovateur réservé et résolu du paysage classique,” in Alfred Sisley, poète de l’impressionnisme, exh. cat., eds. MaryAnne Stevens and Ann Dumas (Lyon: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 2002), pp. 60–79 (English trans., pp. 341–50).
  4. The device of a road curving in and out of view in the corner of the composition can be seen elsewhere in Sisley\’s work from around the same time. See François Daulte, Alfred Sisley. Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint (Lausanne: Éditions Durand-Ruel, 1959), no. 130.
  5. “Il y a toujours dans une toile un coin aimé.” Sisley cited by Adolphe Tavernier, in Shone 1992 (note 2), appendix C, p. 218 (English trans., p. 219).
  6. As MaryAnne Stevens has remarked, Sisley commonly played against landscape convention by blocking access into depth. See “Un peintre entre deux traditions,” in Lyon 2002 (note 3), p. 45 (English text, p. 335).
  7. This differing treatment also speaks to Sisley’s sensitivity to a variety of light effects on a sunny day. As he wrote, “Vous voyez que je suis pour la diversité de la facture dans le même tableau. […] je crois être dans le vrai, surtout quand il s\‘agit de rendre un effet de lumière. Car le soleil, s’il adoucit certaines parties du paysage, en exalte d’autres et ces effets de lumière qui se traduisent presque matériellement dans la nature doivent être rendus matériellement sur la toile”(“You see that I am an advocate of a diversity of treatment in the same picture. […] I think I am right, especially when it is a question of rendering the effect of light. For although sunlight softens some parts of the landscape, it highlights others, and these light effects which express themselves almost physically in nature should be rendered physically on the canvas”). Sisley cited by Adolphe Tavernier, in Shone 1992 (note 2), appendix C, p. 218 (English trans., p. 219).
  8. See Stevens 2002 (note 6), pp. 48–51 (English text, pp. 336–37).
  9. “L’intérêt dans une toile, vous le savez, est multiple.” Sisley cited by Adolphe Tavernier, in Shone 1992 (note 2), appendix C, p. 218 (English trans., p. 219).
  10. Ann Dumas, “Un veritable impressionniste,” in Lyon 2002 (note 3), p. 19 (English trans., p. 324). On more specifically artistic parallels between Sisley’s and Constable’s work, see Christopher Lloyd, “Alfred Sisley and the Purity of Vision,” in Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., ed. MaryAnne Stevens (London: Royal Academy of Arts, with Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 9–11.
  11. Daulte 1959 (note 4), p. 28; Shone 1992 (note 2), pp. 42–43, 49, 56. On Sisley’s relationship with Marie Lescouezec, see Vivienne Couldrey, Alfred Sisley: The English Impressionist (Newton Abbot, Devon [England]: David & Charles, 1992), p. 17.
  12. Shone 1992 (note 2), pp. 42, 47.
  13. Caroline Durand-Ruel Godfroy, “Paul Durand-Ruel and Alfred Sisley: 1872–1895,” in London 1992 (note 10), p. 36; Shone 1992 (note 2), p. 49; Lyon 2002 (note 3), 273–74.
  14. In 1872, Durand-Ruel had purchased twenty-five paintings from Sisley, followed by twenty-nine paintings in 1873; in 1874, the dealer bought only six. Durand-Ruel’s sales of Sisley’s work were also rapidly falling off, from five in 1873 and two in 1874, to none in 1875. See Durand-Ruel Godfroy 1992 (note 13), pp. 36–37.
  15. Shone 1992 (note 2), p. 62. For a comprehensive anthology of reviews of the 1874 exhibition, see Berson 1996 (note 1), pp. 9–43. See also Isabelle Cahn, “Critical Summary,” in London 1992 (note 10), p. 282.
  16. “[…] si parfaite la sensation physique de l’atmosphère, du ‘plein air.’” Ernest Chesneau, “À côté du Salon: II. Le Plein Air: Exposition du boulevard des Capucines,” Paris-Journal (May 7, 1874), p. 2 [and Le Soir (May 7, 1874), p. 3], repr. In Berson 1996 (note 1), p. 19.
  17. See Daulte 1959 (note 4), nos. 114–26; and Shone 1992 (note 2), p. 67.
  18. Shone 1992 (note 2), p. 85.
  19. In 1872–73, Durand-Ruel had paid Sisley between 200 and 500 francs for the pictures he purchased; see Durand-Ruel Godfroy 1992 (note 13), p. 36. On the 1875 sale, see Daulte 1959 (note 4), p. 30; Durand-Ruel Godfroy 1992 (note 13), p. 37; Shone 1992 (note 2), pp. 109–10; Couldrey 1992 (note 11), pp. 51–52; Lyon 2002 (note 3), p. 274.
  20. Shone 1992 (note 2), p. 110; Couldrey 1992 (note 11), pp. 52–53. As in 1874, Sisley attracted considerably less attention than his peers at the 1876 Impressionist exhibition. However, when his work was mentioned in the critical reviews, it was more often praised than not, particularly his Flood at Port-Marly (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF2020; Daulte 1959 (note 4), no. 240). For critical reviews of Sisley’s submissions in 1876, see Berson 1996 (note 1), pp. 53, 55, 60, 63, 68, 70, 83, 87, 88, 95–96, 100, 102, 104, 105, 109–10, 113; and Cahn 1992 (note 15), p. 282. On Sisley’s finances in the early 1880s and his relationship with Durand-Ruel, see Durand-Ruel Godfroy 1992 (note 13), pp. 38–44.
  21. Shone 1992 (note 2), pp. 85, 90.
  22. The title assigned in Daulte’s catalogue raisonné, “Route de Versailles à Saint Germain”[Daulte 1959 (note 4), no. 188] seems to date back at least to Durand-Ruel’s ownership of the painting, putting it on a fairly secure historical footing. A label from the back of the painting reads: “Durand-Ruel / Sisley: Route de Versailles / A S.-Germain / …..(illegible)“; other historic labels that have been preserved simply read “Route de Versailles”(see J. Paul Getty Museum curatorial file: condition report by Mark Leonard, dated June 7, 1999). It should be noted that there is no evidence of the town of St. Germain-en-Laye in the painting itself, as MaryAnne Stevens has noted, making it difficult to positively identify the site (see J. Paul Getty Museum curatorial file: e-mail correspondence, dated May 7–8, 2013).
  23. See Daniel Wildenstein, Monet. Catalogue raisonné / Werkverzeichnis (Cologne: Taschen, 1996), vol. 2, pp. 70–71, no. 147; and Ludovico Rodo Pissarro and Lionello Venturi, Camille Pissarro: son art, son oeuvre (Paris: P. Rosenberg, 1939), vol. 1, p. 89, nos. 76 & 77; vol. 2, pl. 14.
  24. See Daulte 1959 (note 4), nos. 43, 156, 161–62, 207.
  25. Daulte 1959 (note 4), no. 133; for a detailed discussion of this work, see London 1992 (note 10), pp. 128–29, no. 23, entry by MaryAnne Stevens.
  26. MaryAnne Stevens, “La Celle-Saint-Cloud to Louveciennes: 1865–1875,” in London 1992 (note 10), pp. 79–82; Stevens 2002 (note 6), p. 57 (English trans., p. 339).
  27. See, for example, Gary Tinterow, “The Realist Landscape,” in Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., eds. Gary Tinterow and Henri Loyrette (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Harry N. Abrams, 1994), pp. 68–73; and Helga Aurisch, “The Impressionists at Fontainebleau,” in Kimberly Jones et al., In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet, exh. cat. (Washington: National Gallery of Art, with Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 170–81.