There is little in this glowing sunset scene of the old port in Cannes that would outwardly suggest the critical time during which Signac painted it. The Great War was in its fourth stalemated year of carnage. Russia was in throes of the Bolshevik revolution. A pacifist and a humanitarian, Signac had been shocked at the sudden and uncontrollable escalation of events that led the European powers to draw up sides and declare war in August 1914. He wrote to his wife Berthe: "I really think that I shall never be able to recover from the appalling distress in which I am sinking, despite my efforts" (quoted in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 314).
Between the outbreak of the war and the armistice of November 1918, Signac painted only seventeen canvases: none in the remainder of 1914, only one in 1915, and then only a handful in each of the next three years of hostilities. He sold some of the few pictures he completed, but only as necessary to sustain himself, his new companion, Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, and their household in Antibes--in any case, there was not much of an art market during the war. Then in his fifties, he was too old to be called up for service, but many of the younger artists whom he had befriended and championed were in harm's way. Keeping them in his thoughts, he closed the doors of the annual Salon des Indépendants for the duration of the war.
The few paintings that Signac completed during the later years of the war must have been a balm for his troubled spirit. They depict familiar sites along the Côte d'Azur in Antibes, Saint-Tropez and Cannes. Only one painting alludes to the war: Le nuage rose, 1916, in which a squadron of torpedo boats skirts the horizon, while a solitary fishing boat--perhaps emblematic of the artist himself--sails by in the foreground. A huge, ominous cloud, in the company of another in the form of a swirling banshee-like apparition, towers like a massive explosion in the distance (Cachin, no. 509; fig. 1).
Signac mentioned Vieux port de Cannes as being "on his easel" in a letter to Félix Fénéon dated 2 April 1918 (Cachin, op. cit.), and he probably completed the canvas later that spring. Having situated himself on the beach east of the town, the painter looked westward toward the tree-lined Quai de Saint-Pierre, and the old citadel on the hill of Le Suquet--the Castre tower is at left, and the bell-tower of Notre-Dame d'Esperance on the right. The lighthouse at far left marks the tip of the breakwater that shields the western perimeter of Cannes' anchorage. This painting may be enjoyed for its purely scenic qualities, its rich, iridescent colors and the subtlety of Signac's divisionist technique. Given Signac's serious state-of-mind during this time, however, there is another, more significant dimension as well. The Lérin monks built the fortifications during the 11th century after the depredations of pirates drove them from the small offshore islands near Cannes. Humble fishermen ply their ancient trade under the guardianship of the towers, these enduring symbols of order and security, while the lighthouse stands as a stalwart, outlying sentinel and beacon. The clouds above spin in enormous gyres, illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. Signac here projects his hope that the age-old Mediterranean culture and his way of life will endure, and outlast the menace of barbarism and war that has caused him such distress.
(fig. 1) Paul Signac, Le nuage rose (Antibes), 1916. Scott M. Black Collection. BARCODE 27237496