Born in Mauritius, where his father was a ship inspector for Lloyd’s, Le Sidaner moved with his family to their native France at the age of ten and got into the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, after several attempts, at the age of 20 in 1882. He found Paris claustrophobic, and after a brief stay left for the fishing port of Étaples in 1885, plunging gratefully into its ‘bath of air and light’. Here he produced small paintings of peasant girls in the sentimental realist style of Bastien-Lepage for the popular market, and large canvases of social realist subjects for the Salon in the melancholy Symbolist vein then fashionable with fin-de-siècle painters from Newlyn to Milan. In 1887 he exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français and from 1892 at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. From 1892 to 1894, Le Sidaner travelled through Holland and Italy and eventually returned to Paris, where he approached the symbolist circles and befriended both Henri Martin and Ernest Laurent. His high work rate coincided with increasing demand for his paintings from the end of the nineteenth century and his growing commercial success.
Following a move to Bruges in 1898 with his future wife he developed the more personal brand of melancholy that was to make his name. In the nocturne he found an effect of light sidelined by Impressionism, and made it his own, becoming a master of twilight and darkness, often with a solitary light shining through a window. Although his technique was often close to Pointillism, Le Sidaner did not share the Pointillists’ love of colour, preferring greys and opals to create mystery and atmosphere. Instead, he used Pointillist techniques to make the surfaces of his paintings shimmer and blur. Le Sidaner is also often referred to as a Symbolist, though his work largely stops short of the overt imagery of those painters, content with an enigmatic feeling of absence, as human figures are only rarely present in his paintings. Perhaps he is closest to being an Intimist – an artist who captures the light and atmosphere of fleeting moments with rich but toned down colour, although this is a vague definition in itself.
In 1899 he signed an agreement with Galerie Georges Petit to supply the gallery with a regular stream of work, sending between twenty and thirty pictures a year for next three decades, providing a successful middle-age, when he summered at Gerberoy and wintered at Versailles. Although he had such a personal style of painting, many followers were attracted to Gerberoy and the village soon became re-populated as a colony of artists with Le Sidaner reluctantly at its head. He also built a following in Britain and America during this time for his paintings of domesticated nature. His seductive views of the gardens he created in the ruins of the medieval fortress at Gerberoy, with their recently vacated tables dappled in sunlight and overhung by roses, would cement his reputation as a unique and unclassifiable artist.
Today his works can be found in numerous public collections, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
Writings on Le Sidaner tend to focus on the silence exemplified in his work, and his contemporary Paul Signac even went so far as to characterize Le Sidaner’s entire career as a progression towards the elimination of human figures: “His œuvre displays a taste for tender, soft and silent atmospheres. Gradually, he even went so far as to eliminate all human presence from his pictures, as if he feared that the slightest human form might disturb their muffled silence” (quoted in Y. Farinaux-Le Sidaner, op. cit., p. 31).
Often compared to Monet for his portrayal of light through the manipulation of color, Le Sidaner differed from the older generation of Impressionists in that he rarely painted outdoors. Le Sidaner would quickly sketch the scenes he observed, later crafting the compositions from his imagination.