As I was driving past Aix-en-Provence the other week on the way back from the start of stage five of Paris-Nice 2018, I was reminded of a lovely day we had spent there last October. When we stayed in Aix-en-Provence in July to watch two stages of the Tour de France, we noted that Aix’s Hotel de Caumont had an exhibition of the works of Alfred Sisley. I resolved we’d return to Aix to see the exhibition before it closed in mid-October. We duly set aside a day in our diaries to visit both the exhibition and the town. It was a truly glorious day with temperatures peaking at 29C in Aix!
After a trip to the market for some fruit and vegetables, we headed for the exhibition on the assumption it would be quieter over lunch. Our assumption was correct, the museum wasn’t crowded. The exhibition of some sixty works, not all of which have regularly been exhibited in public, retraced the various stages in the development of Sisley’s works by focusing on some of the painter’s favourite locations – very appropriate for a landscape artist – and works from his entire career.
Although we’ve admired his work, we really didn’t know too much about him other than he was brought up in France by British parents. We discovered that, more than any other Impressionist painter, Alfred Sisley utterly devoted himself to painting landscapes, and remained faithful to the movement’s founding principles of painting the scenes in situ, outdoors. Said to be inspired by John Constable in his approach to painting landscapes based on rural motifs, Sisley would carry out a systematic visual analysis of precise places based on his knowledge and experience, exploring them in every direction, noting down the differences between the scenes with the changing light, weather and seasons.
We both love his way of capturing the effects of the light dancing on the surface of the water, the brightness of the winter sun on the snow and the ice, the movements of the trees in the wind, the depth of the rural scenes, and the immensity of the skies which produce moving works worthy of peaceful contemplation. Archive photographs of the landscapes Sisley observed are exhibited alongside his paintings to illustrate the specific methods he adopted to analyse the scenes and takes the visitor from one favourite location to the next; from those where he lived—Louveciennes, Marly-le-Roi, Sèvres, Veneux-Nadon, and Moret-sur-Loing— to those where he stayed for short periods, such as Villeneuve-la-Garenne and Argenteuil, Hampton Court and the south coast of Wales.
Feeling much more knowledgeable about his work, we departed before the hoards returned to enjoy a late lunch in the open air. It’s rare to visit an exhibition where I’d be happy to have any of the artists’ works on my walls – I should be so lucky! – but I could honestly say that of this beautifully curated exhibition. It may now have departed Aix but I’m sure it’ll pop up somewhere else soon enough.