Alfred Sisley, Still Life: Heron with Spread Wings, 1867
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) was a core member of the Impressionist group. Born in Paris to British parents, Sisley spent most of his life in France but maintained a strong connection to Britain. Known mostly for his work in landscape, which displays quite a range, Sisley was the most devoted to en plein air painting of the Impressionists and rarely explored figure painting. Among his most noted works are paintings of the Thames and depictions of the Moret commune, which also exhibit a stylistic range. This painting of a dead heron is rare still life of Sisley's, but utilizes the same ideals that he brought to his landscape painting. Among his chief interests were the way light hits different surfaces, depicting the everyday, and exploring the relationship of subjective experience to reality. We can see all of these elements at work in this piece. The use of light is quite pronounced, illuminating the body of the heron while the background remains in shadow; the heron's wings also stretch into the shadow, emphasizing the breadth of the bird's wingspan and alluding to its majestic flying ability, now extinguished. Lying with the heron are two other birds, presumably killed in the same hunting trip. The painting is a fascinating exploration of emotions surrounding death, for this bird, most likely killed for sport, is arranged to show the gruesomeness of such a kill. The lifelessness of these birds is foregrounded, with the heron's feet strung up. Sisley's painting is about the unnaturalness of the scene, despite its normalcy.