This scene includes part of the boat yard at the confluence of the rivers Seine and Loing [which flows just behind the spot where this was painted]. The 1959 Daulte catalogue Raisonné reproduces seven 1885 paintings showing the same corner [Nos 571, 572, 577, 578, 579, 580, 581]. Whilst this relates most closely to 581, the repositioning of the figure enlivens the whole composition with its more prominent human presence.
The curve of the barge is like a deep, mellow, ponderous cello chord, contrasting with the painting’s light swiftness of touch. And enriching its musical range.
Sisley’s love of music imbues his work with an entirely personal sensitivity and lyricism. One piece he found especially inspiring was the trio from the Scherzo in Beethoven’s Septet.
‘It was this gay, singing phrase which captivated me’, he told a friend. ‘It called forth a response in me from the very beginning and I sing it continually, humming to myself as I work.
The Scherzo’s joyous spirit pulsates in absolute uncanny harmony with this painting. It is, quite literally, Sisley’s signature tune in paint.
Sisley described his artistic beliefs to the collector and critic, Adolphe Tavernier:
To give life to the work of art is certainly one of the most necessary tasks of the true artist. Everything must serve this end: form, colour, surface. The artist’s impression is the life-giving factor.
Although the landscape painter must always be the master of his brush and his subject, the manner of painting must be capable of expressing the emotions of the artist. You see I am in favour of differing techniques within the same picture. This is not the general opinion at present, but I think I am right, especially when it is a question of light.
The sunlight in softening the outlines of one part of a scene will exalt others and these effects of light which seem nearly material in a landscape ought to be interpreted in a material way on canvas.
The sky is not simply a background: its planes give depth [for the sky has planes as well solid ground], and the shapes of the clouds give movement to a picture. What is more beautiful indeed than the summer sky, with its wispy clouds idly floating across the blue? What movement and grace! Don’t you agree? They are like waves on the sea; one is uplifted and carried away. But there is another aspect – the evening sky. Clouds grow thin, like furrowed fields, like eddies of water frozen in the air, and then they gradually fade away in the light of the setting sun. Solemnity and melancholy – a sad moment of departure which I find especially moving.
1885 seems a notable year – both for the number of paintings Sisley produced, and their distinctive gem-like brilliance of light and colour. Daulte records 53 paintings in 1884; 71 in 1885; and 18 in 1886. Yet there is little hint - and none in this painting - of Sisley’s lack of recognition and increasing financial hardship.
17th November 1885
Dear Monsieur Durand-Ruel,
I have received the 200 francs. This will pay a bill which falls due on the 20th of this month and a few small debts. But afterwards? By the 21st, I shall again be without a sou. However I must give something to my butcher and my grocer; to one I have paid nothing for six months and to the other nothing for a year. I also need some money for myself at the start of the winter. There are certain things I must have, and I would like to think that I can depend upon a little calm in order to work.
I am completely in pieces. Tomorrow or afterwards I shall send you three canvases. It is the only work I have.
25th November 1885
Dear Monsieur Durand-Ruel,
You are better placed than I to know what will please the collectors. Therefore return to me the two canvases you think less saleable. I will replace them on my next trip. The situation here remains unchanged.
Your very devoted,
Brush strokes of perfectly pitched colour, contrasting harmoniously in texture and intensity, and deftly applied - as though breathed onto the canvas – embrace, in a broad, gentle sweep, the entire composition. Indeed each single spot of paint appears to vibrate in harmony with the whole.
The particular atmosphere and magic of this painting are touchingly reflected in a later account by his friend, the writer Gustave Geffroy:
Sisley was already in delicate health when he invited me to make the easy journey to Moret. We were admirably entertained by Sisley, his wife and daughter in their home which was both bourgeois and rustic.
That marvellous day, perfect in its ambience of welcome and friendship, has for me remained marked by this premonition of an ageing artist who sensed that during his lifetime, no ray of glory would shine upon his art. This impression is reinforced by the fact that no one present on that day is now alive – not even Mademoiselle Jeanne Sisley, then in the full bloom of youth and beauty. Yet everything was magnificent and harmonious. We spent the morning in the studio and after lunch everybody took charabancs to Moret, the banks of the Loing, and the forest of Fontainebleau where Sisley, acting as master of ceremonies, spoke with unforgettable charm.
I have never forgotten the splendour of the trees, the glades and rocks of which he spoke so poetically; nor indeed his account of the lives and troubles of the river folk whom he knew so well through his studious and reflective existence spent by the river banks and beneath the poplar trees.