The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 proved devastating not just to France, but also to many of the young Impressionists. Pissarro and Monet fled to London, while Sisley had to retreat from the suburbs into the city center, as fighting was especially violent on the outskirts of Paris. Sisley’s father lost his business during the war and the relative comforts provided to his son swiftly vanished. For the next two years, Sisley would live in Paris, enduring the Prussian sieges against the capital. His studio in Bougival was decimated along with well over fifty of his paintings. Finally, in 1872, he was able to move outside of Paris once again, setting up household in the vicinity of Louveciennes.
As art historian Ann Dumas relates, “At Louveciennes Sisley established what was to become his habitual working practice in all the places he lived. He embarked on a detailed exploration of the range of locations and motifs that fell within a narrow compass of his home, often shifting only slightly his angle of vision or scrutinizing the same spot in different weather conditions. In some of the works produced at Louveciennes we see more early examples of what was to become Sisley’s familiar pattern of consciously exploring the same motif under contrasting effects of light or weather” (A. Dumas in Sisley, Poeta del Impresionismo (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 379).
In December of 1872, the Seine flooded—overflowing its banks, covering roads, sidewalks, quaysides and lapping at the doors of homes and businesses. A short distance away from Louveciennes lay the town of Port-Marly; it was in this small village that Sisley set up his easel and set out to capture this fleeting effect of water and light on a new, unfamiliar geography. Frances Fowle, art historian and author, writes of the present work: “A hanging sign projects from the wall of the À St. Nicolas, a wine merchant’s shop, barely distinguishable by its cream and peach-ochre walls on the left of the picture…. Sisley adopts a dramatic perspective, a characteristic of some of his earlier work at Argenteuil, when he was working alongside Monet. The strong diagonal of the pollarded chestnut trees leads the eye into the composition, which is formed by the building on the left and the telegraph pole on the right. The main focus of this picture is the rising flood…. Sisley is fascinated by the relationship between sky and water, and the reflections in the rising floodwater. The repeated verticals of the trees and the tall telegraph pole inject a rhythm into the composition… providing a natural counterpoint to the broad expanse of sky and water… Among the trees and on the river small boats can be seen, but Port-Marly itself appears almost deserted as the inhabitants take refuge from the rising floodwaters” (ibid., p. 422).
Sisley, more than any other member of the Impressionist group, would stay true to the mission and subject of Impressionism. In 1876 the Seine again flooded and again Sisley set up his easel in Port-Marly. The ensuing seven canvases, two of which are now in the Musée d’Orsay, take the same location and approach this vista from a variety of angles at a variety of stages of flood (see fig. 4). In each work the sky and water echo each other and provide the dramatic force behind the canvas. For, while Sisley’s canvases can seem discrete and calm, the magic of them lies in the inherent emotion he captures between these two primary elements of nature.
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