In 1932, when Signac painted this triumphant view of the Norman port of Cherbourg–a divisionist mosaic of rich, voluptuous color–he was sixty-eight years old and had been an indefatigable driving force of the French avant-garde for just shy of a half-century. Unlike Monet, who had spent the final decades of his long career in veritable isolation at Giverny, the outgoing and outspoken Signac remained very much at the center of things–as the president of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, and an active participant and organizer of exhibitions, an influential critic and theorist, and a peripatetic traveler, museum-goer, and collector–right until the very end. “He was a tireless and talented promoter, a powerhouse of enthusiasm,” John Leighton has written. “Where there was friction, he was often either the cause or the mediator. Where there was success, Signac was often behind it” (Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 8).
The Neo-Impressionist doyen and éminence grise of the early twentieth-century art world, Signac was well aware of the onslaught of challenges to his aesthetic vision that came in a rapid succession of “isms” that re-defined modern painting from 1900 onward. Yet he remained staunchly dedicated to the style that he had discovered as a young man and implemented with endless variation until his death, his convictions only renewed and reaffirmed as the decades unfurled. At the same time, his abiding love of pure color spared him from the kind of rigid sectarianism that one might expect from so active an apostle of Neo-Impressionism, and he remained ever receptive to the art of his younger colleagues and invigorated by their company. His work, in turn, served as an important ongoing catalyst in progressive painting, as a steady stream of painters took up the challenge that he had presented at the end of his colorist’s manifesto D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme: “And if there has not yet appeared among them the artist who, by his genius, will be able to exploit [the Neo-Impressionists’] technique to the full, they will at least have helped to simplify his task. This triumphant colorist has only to show himself: his palette has been prepared for him” (quoted in F. Ratliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, New York, 1996, p. 285).
Indeed, the roster of artists who took inspiration and advice from Signac over the course of his career reads like a veritable who’s-who of early modernism. Van Gogh painted in a Neo-Impressionist style with Signac at Asnières in 1887, the year after Signac and Seurat took the art world by storm with their new method at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition. Matisse’s path toward an art of unfettered color led to Signac’s door at Saint-Tropez in 1904, and many of the other emergent Fauves followed in his stead. In 1913, the stippled brushwork of divisionism provided Picasso and Braque with a route back into color, leading Apollinaire to declare that Signac’s style had been “responsible for liberating the artistic consciousness of the younger generation” (quoted in Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2014, p. 161). Artists as disparate as Kandinsky, Balla, Mondrian, Bonnard, and Delaunay numbered Signac among their formative influences, and as late as 1932, the year of the present painting, Klee was working in a brilliantly colored, mosaic-like style that reveals the enduring importance of Signac’s method of painting.
Although Paris, not surprisingly, remained the center of Signac’s professional and commercial orbit throughout his late years, he drew his pictorial inspiration principally from the harbors and ports of the Midi and the Atlantic coast. “I go there for the boats, for the color of the hulls and the sails,” he explained. “A magnificent sight! They come from all over to sell fish, it’s like a library of boats” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 271). Between 1929 and 1931, he devoted himself unreservedly to a major series of watercolors–two depicting each of a hundred French harbors–that the collector Gaston Lévy had commissioned on Signac’s suggestion. In 1932, this tour de force complete, Signac purchased a house at Barfleur, an austere fishing village on the Cotentin Pensinsula in Normandy, which he used until his death as a base for his explorations. “Signac loved the rocky coast of this wind-battered Norman headland,” Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon has written. “From his windows overlooking the harbor on one side and the lighthouse on the other, he observed the comings and goings of the boats. Always wearing his sailor’s cap and an old polo-neck sweater, he paced up and down the quays and drew” (Paul Signac: A Collection of Watercolors and Drawings, exh. cat., The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, 2000, p. 29).
Signac painted the present oil at Cherbourg, a flourishing port some twenty miles west of Barfleur; in the left distance in the painting atop a high hill is the Fort du Roule, constructed in the Napoleonic era to protect against British naval incursions. As so often in Signac’s late work, however, the motif is merely the starting point, a pretext for fantasies of radiant color–rose and fuchsia, peach and coral, lavender and cobalt blue, lushly applied in broad tessera-like strokes. Billowing cloud formations echo and elaborate the rolling line of the hills that ring the harbor, with its gently rippling waters, while the masts of the sailing ships and dinghies create a counterpoint of repeated, staccato verticals. “If Signac’s earlier Neo-Impressionism was an art of renunciation and restraint, his mature style is rich, luxuriant, and sensual,” Leighton has explained. “The finest of his later canvases are impressive performances, with a few simple elements orchestrated into extraordinary optical effects. Freed from the burden of description, color takes on its own exuberant life” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 19).
Many of the ports that Signac painted in his maturity would suffer total devastation during the Second World War, which the artist–an impassioned pacifist and humanitarian–anticipated with grave concern and foreboding as he witnessed the rise of fascism in the years before his death. “With the painter,” Françoise Cachin has written, “there disappeared shortly before World War II one of the last nineteenth-century presences, linked by his optimism and his positivist faith in the future of human progress to the great hope of romanticism” (Paul Signac, Greenwich, CT, 1971, p. 128). Cherbourg, a fortified, deep-water port of great strategic importance, was captured by German troops in June 1940 despite heroic resistance. Four years later, however, after a hard-fought, month-long campaign, it became the very first French harbor re-taken by Allied forces in the Normandy landings, and the Fort du Roule–seen in Signac’s peace-time view aglow in exultant pink light–was transformed from an enemy camp into a potent symbol of liberation and hope for the ravaged nation.
Signac at work, 1929.
Paul Signac, Groix, le phare, 1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Paul Signac, Le pardon des terre-neuvas (Saint-Malo), 1928. Musée de Saint-Malo.
Cherbourg. Fort du Roule
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
Paul Signac , 1930s, Paintings, oil, France, Impressionist, landscape
Paris, Petit-Palais, Exposition Paul Signac, February-March 1934, no. 47.
Paris, Galerie de France, Les Néo Impressionnistes, December 1942-January 1943, no. 19 (titled Cherbourg).
Musée de Mulhouse, Signac: Peintures, aquarelles, January-February 1950, no. 8 (dated 1933).
Lima, Concejo Provincial de Lima, Manet a nuestros días: exposición de pintura francesca, March 1950, no. 11.
Le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Montréal collectionne, dernière décennie, December 1966, no. 75 (titled Le vieux port de Cherbourg).
West Palm Beach, Norton Museum of Art, July 1991 (on loan).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
28 7/8 x 36 ¼ in. (73.3 x 92.1 cm.)
F. Cachin, Signac: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Paris, 2000, p. 338, no. 604 (illustrated).
Estate of the artist.
Ginette Signac, Paris (by descent from the above).
Galerie Druet, Paris (1964).
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, May 1966.