Signac painted five important and quintessentially Neo-Impressionist canvases during his stay in Cassis, a small town on the Mediterranean coast, during April-June 1889. Following his custom at the time, he designated each of these paintings--as if they were symphonies in color--with opus numbers. Le Chateau, Opus 195 (Cachin, no. 181) has not been seen since it was exhibited in Brussels in 1890 and is now presumed lost--there is no illustration in Françoise Cachin's catalogue. Cassis. Cap Lombard, Opus 196 (C., no. 182) is in the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (fig. 1). Cassis. Les Éboulis, Opus 197 (C., no. 183) is in a private collection. Cassis. La Jetée, Opus 198 (C., no. 184) has been in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, since 1976 (fig. 2). Cassis, Cap Canaille, Opus 200--the present painting--has been in private collections for virtually all its history. It is the finest and most important work by Signac to have appeared at auction since it was last sold in 1974.
Cassis. Cap Canaille is the massive headland east of Cassis. It is the highest falaise in all of France; its red limestone cliffs would tower over the famous bluffs at Etretat. Signac's painting fully captures the grandeur of this motif, and is monumental in its effect. When Cassis. Cap Canaille and its two companions from museum collections were shown together in the 2001 Paris-Amsterdam-New York Signac retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this remarkable painting dominated the room. The imposing presence of the brilliant yellow-red massif, its monolithic profile sharply etched against a cloudless pale blue sky and magically mirrored in the calm waters of the Bay of Cassis below, dazzled viewers and left an indelible impression on this writer. In 1890, when Signac first showed this painting in Brussels, the critic Jules Christophe was likewise strongly drawn to it, and he wrote admiringly of the "brilliant ochre of the cliffs, the brilliance of the deeply blue sky, the joyous sparkle of the Mediterranean, giving the impression of a perky and triumphant fanfare" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 144). In her discussion of the painting in the New York exhibition catalogue, Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon puts her finger on the reasons why this painting is so striking: "Of the five paintings done at Cassis, this one is the brightest and most Mediterranean in character and color. The repetition of horizontal lines expresses the serenity so characteristic of the Mediterranean shore at the end of the day The warm colors, like the rocks orange-tinted ochre, and the purple of the foreground shadows suggest a sunset, with its exaltation of the Mediterranean landscape" (ibid.).
Georges Seurat conceived the theory and practice of Neo-Impressionism as a scientific, rational, and technical corrective to the Impressionist's instinctive and spontaneous treatment of nature. He advocated that the latest findings in color research, as undertaken by Charles Blanc, Charles Henry, M.-C. Chevreul and Ogden Rood, be applied to painting in a carefully calculated and systematic manner. As Robert Herbert has observed, "The painter's world is flat and depends on pigments; the scientist's is three-dimensional and depends on light. The only way to reconcile the two is through the artificial conventions of art" (in Georges Seurat, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 5). To many at the time, Seurat's method seemed inordinately artificial, and he was ridiculed for his slow and painstaking application of little dots of paint, the "pointillist" technique. All art at that time, whether Impressionist or academic, aimed to evoke man in his normal state of continuous activity, or nature in flux. The Impressionists were especially adept at, and had become famous for devising painterly effects that captured the transience of the natural world. Seurat's novel technique created an atomized pictorial world that seemed to vibrate and scintillate in microcosm, but gave the overall appearance of being static and inert. One perceived this world as if time had been stopped, or if reality had been frozen as an image in memory. It would take time for most viewers to realize what Seurat was actually after, and that was the aspect of permanence in the material world, intimations of that which was durable and lasting, for this idea constituted the very essence of art itself. Cézanne had set his sights on a similar vision of reality, which he pursued through very different means as a painter. Gauguin and the Symbolists were also on this track, although their journey took a more deliberately inward path of heightened subjectivity, which sought the regeneration and exaltation of the spirit.
History has generally assigned to Signac the role of having been Seurat's foremost disciple and apostle; he was in reality, as we now understand, equally a leader and a driving force in the Neo-Impressionist movement. If Seurat had brought the Word of Neo-Impressionism into the world, then Signac, like his sainted early Christian namesake, was Paul to this new artistic vision of the world. He was a dedicated advocate, interpreter and promulgator; he was also a lively and innovative thinker, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, and more articulate as a theorist than Seurat himself. His classic text, D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, first published in 1898 and then in later editions, is essential reading for understanding the evolution of the role of color in painting from the early 19th century into the dawn of the 20th. Signac possessed a giant-sized and gregarious personality, he was dedicated to his cause, and eager to gain recruits for it. He could be abrupt and abrasive, but as Hilary Spurling has noted, "His generosity acted as a stimulant, and his work opened up dazzling possibilities" (in The Unknown Matisse, New York, 1998, p. 282).
Once Signac had been attracted and converted to the Neo-Impressionist cause, in 1884, near the very moment these ideas were first being put into practice, he was already taking its fundamental assumptions and precepts in the direction he felt they should go. Seurat had placed a major emphasis on the pointillist technique as the primary means for achieving the optical mixture of color. Signac realized, as Seurat would eventually come to see, that pointillism, the use of small dot, did not enhance luminosity of color--when seen in the context of a work of any substantial size, the resultant effect of optical mixture actually seemed quite dull, and contributed to an overall graying effect in the painting. Signac quickly came to favor a more flexible brushstroke, appropriate to the motifs in the composition and even to the size of the canvas, so that it was sufficiently large to facilitate the interaction of color, to enhance the effect that one pure color creates when placed next to another. Signac called this "divisionism", and acknowledged pointillism as being but one technique a painter might utilize and adapt to realize the color effects he was seeking. Signac's flexibility on this count, his practical rather doctrinaire approach to the aims of Neo-Impressionism, made him an important catalyst in progressive painting for years to come. During the summer of 1904, at Signac's invitation, Matisse and his family stayed in Saint-Tropez, where Signac had settled during the previous decade. Matisse experimented with divisionism and painted canvases (fig. 7) in which he anticipated the radical Fauve works he would create the following summer in Collioure.
Signac was a northerner, born in Paris, and like Seurat he had painted mainly in and around Paris (fig. 3) or, when away from the capital on working holiday, in Normandy and Brittany. While they clearly shared an artistic agenda, and exhibited together, Seurat and Signac never worked side by side, as Pissarro and Cézanne had successfully done in Pontoise during the mid-1870s, or Van Gogh and Gauguin had tried to do, with great difficulty and psychological harm to each other, during the fall of 1888 in Arles. In fact, these two charter Neo-Impressionists seemed to make a point of avoiding each other when they left Paris and were on the road. While Seurat remained in Paris during 1887, Signac spent the summer painting in Collioure near the Spanish border, his first seaside sojourn on the Mediterranean (fig. 4). In July 1888, while Seurat was painting his fine land- and seascapes in Port du Bessin (fig. 5), a Norman town that Signac had recommended to him, Signac was painting similar subjects in the seaside Breton town of Portrieux (fig. 6). Before Seurat left Paris to spend the summer of 1889 painting in Le Crotoy on the Channel coast, Signac was already settled in Cassis. No doubt Signac was eager to return to the South to experience the light there, and one may wonder if he was also purposely seeking a quality of light that was different from that which he knew Seurat would be working in. Signac seemed eager to get away from the silvery light of the North, which tended soften the colors in land and sea motifs, and to experience a purer and more crystalline light that would heighten local colors, which were in themselves more varied and higher keyed in the South than it was in the locales where he was accustomed to working. The land and sea in the presence of this light, he felt, might provide a better testing ground for observing and rendering the interaction of color.
While on his way south to the Mediterranean coast in the spring of 1889, Signac paid a visit in late March to Van Gogh, who still in a hospital in Arles, recovering from the recent incident that had driven Gauguin away, when in a fit of despondency he cut off part of his ear and tried to give it to a prostitute. Vincent obtained leave to take Signac to the Yellow House, the small building in town he had shared with Gauguin, and to show him his paintings, which were still stored there. A lively and interesting correspondence ensued between Van Gogh, his brother Theo, who worked for the gallery Boussod, Valadon et Cie in Paris, and Signac. These letters offer a rare insight into the positive qualities of the Signac's character and outlook. Vincent wrote to Theo on 24 March:
"I am writing to tell you that I have seen Signac, and it has done me a lot of good. He was so good and straightforward and simple when the difficulty of opening the door [to the Yellow House] by force or not presented itself--the police had closed up the house and destroyed the lock. They began by refusing to let us do it, but all the same we finally got in. I gave him as a keepsake a still life [of two smoked herrings; Hulsker, no. 1661]... I found Signac very quiet, though he is said to be so violent; he gave me the impression of someone who has balance and poise, that is all. Rarely or never have I had a conversation with an impressionist so free from discords or conflict on both sides... Doubtless you had a hand in his coming to stiffen my morale a bit, and I thank you for it" (Letter 581).
Signac wrote to Theo before leaving Arles: "I found your brother in perfect health, physically and mentally. Yesterday afternoon and again this morning we went for a walk together. He took me along to see his pictures, many of which are very good, and all of which are very curious... There is only one thing he wishes--to be able to work in tranquility. So do your best to grant him this happiness. How dismal the life he is living must be for him" (Letters, no. 581a).
Shortly after arriving in Cassis, Signac sent Vincent a postcard postmarked 4 April 1889 to let him know where he was staying (Letter, no, 583a). Vincent responded with a letter that included two small ink sketches of canvases he had recently painted. Before this letter reached its destination, Signac had already mailed a letter as a follow-up to his postcard. He wrote Vincent, from 2, place de la République, Cassis: "As I told you in my recent postcard, I have now settled in Cassis, a pretty little seaport an hour from Marseilles. White, blue and orange, harmoniously spread over the beautiful rise and fall of the land. All around mountains with rhythmic curves. I am taking a great deal of trouble. If I succeed in rendering only a tenth of what I see, I shall be quite contented. Our malachite green and our cobalt blue... are as dung beside the Mediterranean waves"
(Letters, no. 584a).
Signac had invited Vincent to join him in Cassis, but his friend had to decline because he was short of money. One interesting "what if" concerning Signac's circle would be to imagine what Seurat might have accomplished if he had not died from a probable bout with diphtheria in 1891, aged only 31, and had lived, as Signac had done, well into the 20th century, encountering Fauvism, Cubism and non-objective painting. An equally intriguing "what if" is what might have happened to Van Gogh if he joined Signac in Cassis that spring, and the two men painted side by side. Van Gogh had dabbled with divisionism in Paris in 1886, and put it aside, although not without taking away some useful lessons from it about interactive color. It is unlikely that he would returned to a Neo-Impressionist style if he had joined Signac that spring, and Signac would not have coerced him do so. Signac might have been the positive influence on Vincent that Gauguin was not, with some conceivable impact on the future of his mental health. As it happened, Vincent died by his own hand in July 1890, less than a year before Seurat's equally untimely demise.
Signac spent nearly three months in Cassis. Moving west to east, he systematically painted the three promontories that contain the Bay of Cassis, culminating in the dramatic cliffs of Cap Canaille. He personalized this particular canvas by showing in the foreground the seaside cottage he used as his base. Signac was an experienced sailor and yachtsman, and he relished maritime subjects. He depicted in the Cap Canaille canvas--in this one alone of all the Cassis paintings--the local fishing fleet, the town's livelihood, at work, plying the waters at the entrance to the bay. A lone boat, its ancient lateen-rigged sail barely filled with the diminishing sea breezes at the end of the day, slowly and serenely makes its way back to port.
The artist ended his stay when he received word that his grandfather had passed away in Asnières. The completion of only five easel paintings, with a handful of related studies, only two of which are extent (C., nos. 185 and 187), may not seem especially productive compared to what Monet might have accomplished on site, but it must be remembered that finely calibrated divisionist paintings were very time-consuming to paint. In fact, among the reasons that Pissarro offered when he abandoned Neo-Impressionism around 1890 was that he could not find time, using this slow method, to treat all the subjects he wanted to paint, and he could not produce enough work to support his family. Besides, the paintings were difficult to sell, and dealers shied away from them.
Signac was pleased with what he had done in Cassis. When an article appeared four years later claiming that Signac's paintings of the Midi were not as successful as those of Van Gogh, Signac considered his Cassis paintings and wrote in his journal, "I believe I have never painted pictures as 'objectively exact' as those of Cassis. In this region there is only white; the reflected light everywhere devours local colors and grays shadows. The pictures that Van Gogh painted in Arles are marvellous in their fury and intensity, but they do not convey the 'luminosity' of the Midi" (quoted in F. Cachin, op. cit., 1971, p. 46).
Signac thought highly of Cassis. Cap Canaille, and he included it in two exhibitions in 1890, first in January at the Salon des XX in Brussels, sponsored by the independent and progressive painters who worked in Belgium, including Théo van Rysselberghe, who had also adopted Neo-Impressionism. He then placed it in the sixth Salon des Indépendants in Paris, which opened in March. Among the viewers who admired the painting in Brussels was Vincent d'Indy, one of France's leading composers, and later the founder of the Schola Cantorum, an important and influential music school in Paris. D'Indy had helped Signac find a buyer for La Jétée. Cassis (fig. 2) following the Brussels exhibition. To thank D'Indy, Signac gave him an oil sketch he had done for Cassis. Cap Canaille (now lost). D'Indy expressed his pleasure, writing on 3 May 1890, "I have received your Cap Canaille. I hung it high above my worktable so as to have the exact impression of an open window giving out onto the red mountain" (quoted in exh. cat., op, cit., 2001, p. 145).
Sylvie Deschamps, known as the "Widow Monnom", the head of prestigious Monnom publishing house in Brussels, purchased Cassis. Cap Canaille during the Brussels exhibition. Mme Deschamps published young writers, avant-garde reviews and the catalogues of Les XX exhibitions. In 1928 Signac made efforts to locate the painting for the catalogue raisonné of his works that Gaston Lévy had undertaken. He recalled the 'Cap Canaille in Cassis' as "one of the pictures I painted with the utmost pleasure [in] 1889" (quoted in ibid.).
(fig. 1) Paul Signac, Cassis. Cap Lombard, Opus 196, 1889. Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. BARCODE 25010596
(fig. 2) Paul Signac, Cassis. La Jétée. Opus 198, 1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 25010602
(fig. 3) Paul Signac, Arrière du Tub, Opus 175, 1888. Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 May 2007, lot 35. 25513776
(fig. 4) Paul Signac, Collioure. La Plage de la ville, Opus 165, 1887. The Metropolitan Museum of Art., New York. BARCODE 25010619
(fig. 5) Georges Seurat, Port-en-Bessin, les grues et la percée, 1888. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 25010626
(fig. 6) Paul Signac, Portrieux. Les Mâts, Opus 182, 1888. Sold, Christie's New York, 7 May 2002, lot 14. BARCODE 25010695
(fig. 7) Henri Matisse, Luxe, calme et volupté, 1904-1905. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 25010633