The year is 1870 and on July 19th France had declared war on Prussia. The war went badly for France and the siege of the Paris ended in an armistice on January 28th 1871. It was a crushing defeat for the French and for the Parisians three months of further violence and bloodshed was to follow from March to May of that year with the uprising known as the Paris Commune. Alfred Sisley lost everything that he owned at his apartment in Bougival. Like so many others, his house was looted and destroyed by the occupying forces. As mentioned in the previous blog, worse was to follow as in 1871 his father’s business collapsed and his father became bankrupt and later died penniless. Alfred Sisley had now to rely on the sale of is paintings for he and his family to survive. Artists needed a way to exhibit and sell their works and at one time the Paris Salon was the only and the way to do that and that depended on their work being accepted by the Salon jurists, but then came the art dealers with their private galleries and this meant the artists did not have to rely on the Salon to market their work.
Enter Paul Durand-Ruel who was to play a part in Alfred Sisley’s life in the 1870’s. Durand-Ruel was born in Paris, on October 31st, 1831, the son of shopkeepers Jean Durand and Marie Ruel. It was in their shop that they allowed famous artists to display their paintings and sketches. In the 1840’s, their shop soon became a regular rendezvous for artists and collectors alike, so much so that Jean Durand decided to turn their shop into an art gallery. Their seventeen-year-old son, Paul, joined the family business in 1848. It must have been an exciting time for the young man as he was sent all over Europe to seek out new artists and sell their paintings. In the mid-nineteenth century, his father’s gallery specialized in paintings produced by the landscape artists of the Barbizon School, such as Corot. Paul Durand-Ruel knowledge of art grew and in 1863 he was acknowledged as the firm’s resident art expert. Following the death of his father in 1865, Paul Durand-Ruel took over the business.
During the Franco-Prussian War Durand-Ruel left Paris and escaped to London. It was in the English capital that he met up with a number of exiled French artists including Charles-François Daubigny, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro. Paul set up his own London art gallery at 168 New Bond Street and in December 1870, he staged the first of ten Annual Exhibitions of the Society of French Artists. Soon Durand-Ruel became acquainted with their works and through them met their fellow artists.
Paul Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, and there, he secured Impressionism’s place in history through tireless promotion across Europe and the United States and enthusiastic Americans ensured its success. Durand-Ruel discovered, promoted, protected, advocated, and finally exported the work of Sisley, Renoir, Monet, Degas, and Pissarro. Of al the art dealers, he was by far the most committed to their art. He invested in it at a time when all they had to show were refusals and derision at their efforts. It was an interesting relationship between Durand-Ruel and the artists. It was almost a one-way association. He offered them passionate and financial support, the painters repaid him with the only thing they had: their loyalty, which in a way, counted for nothing since he was almost the only dealer who wanted their work. Often, he would over-pay for their finished paintings so as to keep their prices up, but he was rarely able to sell it on. He admitted he was not a good businessman and once said that if he had died when he was in his mid-fifties, he would have died penniless. This was mainly due to the Paris Bourse crash of 1882 which was the worst crisis in the French economy in the nineteenth century. Durand-Ruel was forced to repay the money he had borrowed from Jules Feder, 0ne of the struggling directors of the ill-fated l’Union Générale bank, which eventually collapsed. It was a bank established by Catholic grandees in 1876 to compete with the famous German-Jewish Rothschild bankers.
However, everything changed for Durand-Ruel around 1892 when he succeeded in establishing the market for Impressionism in the United States. The first official French Impressionist exhibition in the United States opened at New York City’s American Art Association from April to May, 1886, and later, in 1887, it moved to the New York City’s National Academy of Design with additional works of art. Of the American buying public Durand-Ruel is quoted as saying:
“…Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after having bought so many Monets and Renoirs. The two exhibitions there in 1886 saved me. The American public bought moderately . . . but thanks to that public, Monet and Renoir were enabled to live and after that the French public followed suit…”
In 1887, Paul Durand-Ruel opened a New York City gallery at 297 Fifth Avenue named Durand-Ruel & Sons; two years later, in September 1889, it moved to 315 Fifth Avenue, and finally, in 1894, to 398 Fifth Avenue. The gallery was managed by his three sons, Charles, Joseph, and Georges.
Alfred Sisley may not have lived to share the American public’s recognition enjoyed by the likes of Renoir, Monet and Degas but they still liked his atmospheric landscapes which were shown at many of the American exhibitions and were part of many private collections before 1914.
In July 1874, Sisley made a return trip to London with his friend the famous French Opéra-Comique singer, Jean-Baptiste Faure, an avid collector of Impressionist paintings. Faure bankrolled their trip by buying six of Sisley’s works. The pair stayed initially in South Kensington before moving to Hampton Court. Hampton Court was a popular leisure resort with good accessibility to central London. In that year Sisley completed a painting depicting part of the bridge joining Hampton Court with the small village of East Molesey on the south side of the river Thames. It was entitled Une Auberge à Hampton Court (Hampton Court Bridge: The Castle Inn). The Castle Inn, which some believe could have been where the pair were staying, is the focal point of the painting. The relaxed leisurely feeling is depicted by the elegantly clothed figure as he saunters down the road towards us. Sisley has overpainted the light grey ground with bright tones. Look how Sisley has emphasised the broad gravel street by placing his figures to the very edge of it and by doing this he has established a broad vacant zone directly in front of us.
Another work painted by Sisley in 1874 featured the opposite end of the bridge at Hampton Court and is entitled Hampton Court Bridge: The Mitre Inn. The bridge in the painting was the third one on this site having been built in 1865. This was replaced by the current bridge, constructed of reinforced concrete, faced with red bricks and white Portland Stone, in 1933. The inn is the red brick building on the left. There was an inn at each end of the bridge. On the south end was the Castle Inn (previous painting) and on the north end there stood the Mitre Inn. In this painting we once again see the depiction of part of the cast iron bridge which spanned the Thames at Hampton Court and it is thought that Sisley painted this view whilst on the terrace of the Castle Inn.
This viewpoint was used by him for his painting, Regatta at Hampton Court. The large trees on the left and centre of the painting hide the entrance to Hampton Court, one of the royal palaces.
By far one of the quirkiest paintings of the bridge by Sisley was his work entitled Under Hampton Court Bridge. The dramatic depiction is painted from beneath the cast iron and brick bridge and the view between the avenue of bridge piers is of the far riverbank and a pair of rowing boats.
Three paintings of the Hampton Court bridge by Sisley, a bridge which was not known for its beauty, with one commentator of the time asserting that
“…it was one of the ugliest bridges in England, and a flagrant eyesore and disfigurement both to the river and to Hampton Court…”
However, for Sisley it was a structure worthy of his time and effort.
..………………to be concluded