GREENWICH, Conn. — Curator MaryAnne Stevens fancies herself a bit of a detective when researching artist Alfred Sisley, the center of a major retrospective that opened this month at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.
Few records remain of the life, times and philosophy of the “purest of all the major Impressionists,” who was a contemporary of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
“In a way, the paintings have to speak for themselves,” Stevens told a tour group at the press preview for the new exhibit, which opened Saturday. “And they do.”
“Alfred Sisley (1839-1899): Impressionist Master,” the first major monographic show of Sisley’s work in more than 20 years, spotlights about 50 of his paintings, which come from private collections and major museums in both Europe and North America. Some, including the early "Spring, Peasant Under Trees in Blossom," have not been seen publicly for decades.
Born to well-to-do British parents living in Paris, Sisley was headed for a career in commerce before becoming entranced by landscape painting.
Though she clearly enjoys his unusual, almost cinematic sense of place, Stevens admits Sisley was an “uneven painter,” who is believed to have created more than 880 works between the 1860s and his death from cancer in 1899.
And there was a good reason for his output.
“He was forever in need of cash,” said Stevens, an independent art historian who has been studying his work since the 1970s.
For the Bruce exhibition, which will travel to Aix-en-Provence, France in June, Stevens challenged herself to find privately held works that are rarely seen. It took years to secure some for the Bruce, the only American venue for this collection.
Stevens said she appreciates Sisley, in part, because, unlike more famous Monet, Renoir and Camille Pissaro, he stayed true to his Impressionist roots throughout his career. He insisted on working outdoors, engaging with his subjects and the play of natural light and color so crucial to the Impressionist movement.
He’s also known for hinting at things unseen by the viewer, such as shadows and reflections in the water.
“He’s indicating what lies beyond the edge of the canvas,” said Stevens, stopping before a series of winter scenes. “And he was a past master in the painting of snow. You can feel the cold in his brushwork.”
“Alfred Sisley: Impressionist Master” will be at the Bruce now through May 21. The museum will also host several lectures in conjunction with the exhibition, including talks on Monet’s water lilies, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. For more information, visit www.brucemuseum.org .