The artist was born in Paris to affluent English parents. His father William Sisley was in the silk business, and his mother Felicia Sell was a cultivated music connoisseur.
In 1857, at the age of 18 years, Sisley was sent to London to study for a career in business, but after four years he abandoned it and returned to Paris in 1861. Beginning in 1862 he studied at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts where he became acquainted with Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Together they would paint landscapes en plein air rather than in the studio, in order to realistically capture the transient effects of sunlight. The approach, resulted in paintings that were more colourful and more broadly painted than the public were accustomed to seeing. This lead to Sisley and his fellow artists initially having very few opportunities to exhibit or sell their work. Their paintings were usually rejected by the jury of the most important art exhibition in France, the annual Salon. (During the 1860s, though, Sisley was in a better position than some of his fellow artists, as he received an allowance from his father).
In 1866 Sisley began a relationship with Eugénie Lesouezec also known as Marie Lescouezec, a Breton girl living in Paris. The couple produced two children a son Pierre (born 1867) and a daughter Jeanne (1869). At the time, Sisley lived not far from Avenue de Clichy and the Café Guerbois, the gathering place of many Parisian painters. In 1868 his paintings were accepted at the Salon, but the exhibition did not bring him any financial or critical success, and neither did any of the subsequent exhibitions.
Due to the Franco-Prussian War which began in 1870, the artist’s father’s business, failed. Sisley’s sole means of support now came from the sale of his works. For the remainder of his life, he would live in poverty. However, occasionally he would be supported by his patrons who allowed him, among other things, to make a few brief trips to England. The first of these occurred in 1874 after the first independent Impressionist Exhibition. The result of a few months spent near London was a series of nearly twenty paintings of the Upper Thames near Molesey, which was later described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “a perfect moment of Impressionism.”
Up until 1880, Sisley lived and worked in the countryside west of Paris; then Sisley and his family moved to a smaller village near Moret-sur-Loing, close to the forest of Fontainebleau where the artists from the Barbizon school had worked earlier in the Century. Here, as art historian Anne Poulet has said, “the gentle landscapes with their constantly changing atmosphere were perfectly attuned to his talents. Unlike Monet, he never sought the drama of the rampaging ocean or the brilliantly coloured scenery of the Côte d’Azur.” In 1881 Sisley made another brief voyage to England.
In 1897 Sisley and his partner visited Wales and were finally married in Cardiff. Then went on to stay at Penarth, where he painted at least six oils of the sea and the cliffs. In mid-August they moved to the Osborne Hotel on the Gower Peninsula, where he produced at least eleven oil-paintings in and around Rotherslade Bay, returning to France in the October. This was Sisley’s last voyage to his ancestral homeland. (The National Museum of Wales in Cardiff now possesses two of his Welsh oil paintings.)
The following year he applied for French citizenship but was refused; a second application was made and supported by a police report, however illness intervened and Sisley was to remain British until his death. The painter died in Moret-sur-Loing at the age of 59, just a few months after the death of his wife.