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Alfred Sisley, who was born in France of British parents, is often called "the English Impressionist". This is a put-down, like "the Peruvian Cubist" or "the Swabian pre-Raphaelite". It reeks of the second-rate, the imitator. It is the judgment of a world that has taken this long to give Sisley his first proper retrospective exhibition.

The Sisley problem was that this talented and thoughtful landscapist did not produce enough material to fill out doctorates and learned monographs. He fitted the Impressionist technique perfectly, and having found his style, stayed securely put. The first Alfred Sisley paintings exhibited here are exactly what one would expect the works of a young proto-Impressionist to look like: rather too gloomy and solid landscapes, but showing a fluency of brushstrokes and fidelity to the ordinary that hint at greater things.

Quite suddenly, in 1870, Alfred Sisley paintings become recognisably Impressionist. Almost magically there appear the characteristic light palette and sketchy stabs of the brush, conveying exhilarating movement and colour in quiet streets and suburbs--the poetry of the mundane. His final paintings of the 1890s are not so different as to shock. He did not do what art historians like painters to do. He did not constantly push, and twist, and extend his range.

He stuck conservatively to classical compositions and the small scale (almost all the Alfred Sisley paintings in the exhibition in London, which moves on the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and then to the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, are roughly the same size). He showed little of Monet's colour-theory and none of Pissarro's social conscience.

He just hung around small French towns and the suburbs of London. And painted. And how: anyone who does not feel a sudden flush of pleasure when confronted with a classic Sisley needs to take his soul in for a service. The great achievement of the exhibition is to rescue Sisley from the context of a hundred glossy Impressionist anthologies and make his individual talent clearer. And where he differs from the other Impressionists is in his fluid, at times almost water-colourish, use of oil paint, his rapid sketchiness and his immediacy.

He had a special interest in loose, scrambled but almost cartoon-specific strokes, and had his particular colour interests, notably sourish and acidic greens, and luminous greys. A hole in the retrospective is any proper selection of his last works. These include some fabulous coastline paintings of Wales. In the last paintings, the soapy, ecstatic paintwork is reminiscent of Kokoschka--and curiously, his final crayon works are a little Russian too, rather like those of the young Kandinsky.

But perhaps such what-would-have-happened-next? speculation is in itself alien to the spirit of Sisley. A painter who can draw the people and delight them with every canvas can afford to turn his nose up at the art world's ever-clever obsession.

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