Sisley: Impressions

June 27, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

After her visit to the recent exhibition of paintings by theImpressionist master Alfred Sisley, Mary Rozenburg of Los Altos, Calif., paused to write in the visitors' comment book:

"Sisley must be smiling indeed to see so many of his children in one place -- one hundred years later."

The children she had in mind, no doubt, were the 61 Sisley paintings assembled from around the world by the Walters Art Gallery, the Musee D'Orsay in Paris and the British Royal Academy of Art in London.

She might have been been surprised to know that real descendants of the English artist were on hand as well.

In the same book of jottings, one finds this:

"I am the Great, Great, Great Grandson of Sisley. I liked the paintings a lot."

Just below that thank-you from Jamie Sisley, age 9, the painter's great, great grandson wrote:

"My children and I loved the exhibit. You have given me an opportunity to show them more of their heritage in an afternoon than they could have viewed in a lifetime of travel."

Though his sentiment had a unique dimension, Jamie's father, Jim, might have been speaking for many of the 150,000 people -- 50,000 more than expected -- who saw these paintings between March and June 14. Once again, the Walters has given Baltimore an elegant, understated tour de force of acumen and reach.

The team that assembled the exhibit included William R. Johnston of the Walters, Mary Anne Stevens of the Royal Academy and Christopher Lloyd, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. For almost five years, they scoured museums and private collections in search of the most representative pieces.

In some cases, elaborate deals were made to get what they wanted: two pictures from Japan, for example. The Japanese owner was then planning another exhibition with another Japanese museum. Museum Two wanted a Monet held by the Walters. So, Japanese Institution One would provide the Sisleys if the Walters, noted for its generous loan policy, would provide the Monet to Japanese Institution Two.

Such exertions make it clear that such a show may never be seen again. This was the first Sisley retrospective in 90 years. In that sense, it was as fleeting as the light illuminating an impressionist landscape.

And everywhere in the comments made by visitors is a sense that at some level people recognized their privilege.

"Thank you for bringing these pictures to my eyes," said Sharon Yates, address unnoted.

The show was marketed in a 10-state region, but visitors signed in from Puerto Rico, Belgium, Israel, Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay, among other countries. "It was worth coming from New Zealand to Baltimore for this show," said Dr. L. M. Scott.

A businessman from Yancey, S.C., in Baltimore overnight and "Dr. Morrison's Honors World History II Class at Shippensburg University" in south central Pennsylvania recorded their appreciation.

Still, the museum was taking something of a risk. Some critics say Sisley is the ultimate impressionist, but he has not had the popular acclaim of Monet or Van Gogh or Renoir, certain box office draws.

"From an intellectual viewpoint, there was no risk. It begged to be done," says Howard White, the museum's public relations and marketing director. What might happen with Alfred Sisley was not fully knowable -- but finding out was the sort of risk the Walters wants to take.

As to risk-taking, though, the request for comments might also qualify.

One did find a very small number of essentially good natured graffiti: "I could do better. Pablo Picasso." "Thank you very much. Elvis." Also, a drawing of Mickey Mouse and the imprint of a kiss carefully planted on the corner of one page.

And there was one persistent complaint: An alarm went off whenever someone leaned too close, causing considerable perturbation.

"The art was good but nothing compared to the wonderous sound of the alarm."

A few, reading what fellow visitors had said, defended the museum's determination to protect the work and urged acceptance of minor inconveniences as a small price.

Listening to a recorded analysis of the paintings and a narrative of the artist's life, one found in Sisley a man fully invested, solidly in control, exquisitely focused and oblivious to the poverty and pain of his life. A single painting or even a handful of them could never have conveyed the same sense of an artist's work. The visitor could take the steps he took as if with him, feeling fulfilled on the way toward the effects he wanted. The sublime results were everywhere appreciated.

"I can smell the Seine and feel the sun shining down on me," wrote Laura Bodin, address unlisted.

What is communicated by these paintings, spread across a wide public canvas, raising and answering questions about the relationship between artists and the rest of us, about the inspiration, understanding, insight and compassion of art and artists?

Brush strokes are words, almost palpable, a medium of communication between viewer and painter, offering a sense of immediacy across the space of a century as if these strokes, these messages were made yesterday.

Some were emboldened by what they saw: "I'm getting out my brushes again." And some overwhelmed: "I'll never paint again."

Some were saddened or even shamed by what they learned of Sisley's life. He died without acclaim in what has been called bitter poverty: "We need to support painters of this quality while they are still alive."

His paintings, representing much of his life, suggest it was the work that mattered to him. One guesses that it gave him some joy, some comfort.

It gave the same to us:

"It's a warm gentle embrace for my spirit."

"Great for the eyes, good for the soul."

"Beautiful beyond my heart to express."

Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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