Canal St Martin (1870) by Alfred Sisley
Interpretation of Impressionist Urban Landscape Painting

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Canal St. Martin, Paris.
By Sisley.
Regarded as one of the
great modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Canal St Martin (1870)


Analysis of Canal St Martin
Explanation of Other Impressionist Landscape Paintings


Name: Canal St Martin (1870)
Artist: Alfred Sisley (1839-99)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Urban landscape painting
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


See: How to Appreciate Art.


Alfred Sisley, the 'forgotton Impressionist', was - like his friends Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) - a devotee of plein air painting, which facilitated the capture of the 'fleeting moment' of light and colour. Although not invented by the Impressionists - it was pioneered by the likes of John Constable (1776-1837) and Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), (artists incidentally whose works Sisley became familiar with during the four years he spent in England from 1857 to 1861), as well as the Barbizon School - it was the Impressionists who revolutionized its use, and Impressionist landscape painting that captured the imagination of the world.

NOTE: Sadly, Sisley died in poverty although he is now acknowledged to be one of the best landscape artists of his day. For three of his best works, see the summer landscape Chemin de la Machine, Louveciennes (1873); the foggy scene Misty Morning (1874); and the snowscape Snow at Louveciennes (1878).

Analysis of Canal St Martin by Alfred Sisley

Paintings of Paris by the Impressionists were numerous in the period shortly preceding the Franco-Prussian War and the years immediately following. In keeping with their general aims, in general they were not topographical in approach, nor did they seek out older or more picturesque views of the city for their historical or romantic interest. They added to their feeling for nature - as expressed in trees, sky and river - the animation belonging to a metropolis which in some measure provided all these things. Monet and Renoir especially applied themselves to a rendering of the movement of crowds against the background of the boulevards. Perhaps they took example to begin with from the varied groups in Manet's View of the World Fair (1867, National Gallery, Oslo). There is a fascinating evolution from the people individually seen in Renoir's Pont Neuf (1872, National Gallery, Washington DC) to the blurred figures, caught in a moment in time, in Monet's Boulevard des Capucines (1874, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO) shown at the first of the Impressionist Exhibitions (1874-86). Sisley was not so bold as they in the inclusion of human beings but his sensitiveness to atmosphere is apparent in so delightful an evocation of Paris as this view, one of two he exhibited at the Salon of 1870.



Sisley did not paint as many city views as other Impressionist painters and was perhaps the one who like the countryside best, for its own sake as well as a subject to paint; but the quiet ripples of the Canal St Martin and the mild cheerfulness of the sky are elements in this picture of which he gave many rural variations.

This landscape depicts a wide stretch of the Canal St Martin near the Bassin de la Villette, in Paris. Houses and warehouses overlook the canal from both sides, while in the distance, beyond the lock and towards the centre of the city, buildings loom up in the haze. The Canal is bathed in hot sun which, judging by the shadows, is almost at its height. But a keen breeze is stirring the water and keeping temperatures down, while overhead, clouds are scudding across the blue sky. The relative lack of leaves on the trees and also on the ground, suggests the scene is probably set in the early Spring.

Sisley captures the moment using a silvery palette of blues and greys, thickening the paint for the highlights on the water. He would almost certainly have sketched an outline of the composition beforehand, and might perhaps have finished the shaded buildings back in the studio, but the freshness of the light and its reflections indicate that the rest of the picture would have been done spontaneously outdoors, en plein air. Like his friend Claude Monet, Sisley was well aware of the contrast to be gained by contrasting fluid patches, like water or sky) with fixtures like bridges and buildings. In this pleasing composition, he contrasts the large expanse of water with the lines of buildings on both sides of the canal, as well as the lock bridge at the end. The sun highlights on the surface of the canal are so lifelike, they make you squint.

NOTE: For the full story behind French Impressionism and the group artists who started it, see our 10-part series, beginning with: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Canal St Martin was painted at a time when Sisley had progressed in style from a less adventurous early manner - mainly influenced by Camille Corot (1796-1875) though to some extent by also by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) - to a mature technique bearing the unmistakable stamp of the already well-defined Impressionist movement. This appears in the use of broken colour, the importance given to an atmospheric blue and the way in which the picture is knit together by the pervading light. Buildings and figures are carried only so far as is necessary to suggest that they are instantaneously seen as part of the general effect. Although not one of the most famous landscape paintings, the picture has a gentle harmony that can fittingly be called lyrical, the buildings forming an unobtrusive frame to the sky and water, painted with evident delight. For more, see: Characteristics of Impressionism (1870-1930).

Explanation of Other Impressionist Landscape Paintings

La Grenouillere (1869) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By Monet.

Poppy Field (Argenteuil) (1873) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
By Monet.

Vegetable Garden with Trees in Blossom, Spring, Pontoise (1877) Pissarro.
Musee d'Orsay.

Path Leading Through Tall Grass (1877) by Renoir.
Musee d'Orsay.

The Red Roofs (1877) by Pissarro.
Musee d'Orsay.

Water Lilies (1897-1926) Various art museums.
By Monet.


• For an explanation of other Impressionist landscapes, see: Homepage.

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