A hymn to the South of France which Paul Signac so loved and where he made his home, Sainte-Anne is a 1905 landscape showing the evening light caressing the trees, buildings and distant hills. The port of Saint-Tropez itself lies in the lower-centre of the composition, the belltower clearly visible, silhouetted against the turquoise sea. This picture, which is filled with nuanced light and electric colour, was clearly admired at the time both by the artist himself and by his contemporaries, as it featured in a number of important early exhibitions of Signac's work including his 1907 retrospective at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, for which he himself created sketch-like illustrations for the catalogue. The importance of Sainte-Anne is also reflected in its provenance: it was formerly in the collection of Gustave Fayet, one of the most important supporters of the avant garde in the early Twentieth Century, as well as an early patron of Post-Impressionism and of Paul Gauguin in particular.
It was in 1892, the year following the death of Georges Seurat, his friend and fellow pioneer of Neo-Impressionism, that Signac first ventured to Saint-Tropez. Signac was already familiar with parts of the South of France, having embarked upon previous painting expeditions to places such as Cassis and Collioure. Saint-Tropez, however, became a key base for the artist; in 1897, he would purchase a property there, La Hune, and add a studio to it. From that point onward, he divided his time increasingly between Paris and the South.
Despite the amount of time that Signac spent in Saint-Tropez and its environs, Sainte-Anne is one of only two individual works showing the area of the Chapelle Sainte Anne, a retreat perched above the town and enjoying a sweeping view down to the coast through the trees. The other work, a watercolour from around 1895, shows a view of the trees seen through some of the cloister-like arches of the building, recalling the drawings of his friend and fellow artist Vincent van Gogh.
Where that earlier watercolour bears a stylistic similarity to the Dutch painter's work, it is the contrast between Sainte-Anne - which Signac painted only a decade later - and the works of Van Gogh which is more telling. Where an earlier picture of cypress trees by Signac, now in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, showed the dark, thrusting triangular forms against a near-bleached landscape, conveying a sense of broad daylight in the South of France and echoing Van Gogh's pictures, the treatment of the trees in Sainte-Anne is more naturalistic, regardless of the Neo-Impressionist style of painting. Indeed, in this picture, the points at the peaks of the trees are deliberately cut off; instead, the bodies of these cypresses are used as dark framing devices for the landscape that unfurls behind.
This use of the cypress trees shown to the side of Sainte-Anne is a compositional technique that Signac used in a number of pictures, often making use of verticals such as masts, sails and the pine trees of the South of France to add a dark, curtain-like frame to his landscapes. Signac had already used this as a technique in an earlier view of Saint-Tropez painted in 1896 which is now in the Musée de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez. It also featured in another view showing the customs path with Saint-Tropez in the background. That picture, now in the Musée de Grenoble, was one of only four pictures (including Sainte-Anne) which Signac painted on this scale in 1905; indeed, it is a mark of the painstaking attention that his pictures involved that he produced a total of only thirteen paintings that year, nine of which showed Venetian motifs inspired by his journey there the previous year (one of those, La maison verte, would be selected by Matisse that year as part of the exchange by which Signac acquired Luxe, calme et volupté).
Through its almost theatrical framing of the distant landscape, Sainte-Anne appears to recall the paintings of Claude Lorrain rather than Van Gogh. It is no coincidence that, in his preface to an exhibition of Signac's paintings a few years earlier, Félix Fénéon had referred to a comment made by Goethe about Claude Lorrain: 'Ils ont, ces tableaux, la plus grande vérité sans ombre de réalité... c'est là le véritable idéalisme' ('These pictures have the greatest truth without the slightest shadow of reality... that is the true idealism'; Fénéon, quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, 'Paul Signac au temps d'harmonie, 1892-1913', pp. 51-73, in E. Franz et al., Signac et la libération de la couleur, De Matisse à Mondrian, exh. cat., Grenoble, 1996, p. 69).
For Signac, that idealism is clear in the elegance and serenity of Sainte-Anne, both in the beauty of the view and in the way that the artist has used colour to accentuate it. Signac's move to Saint-Tropez had originally come in the wake of Seurat's death, at a moment of crisis for Neo-Impressionism. There was a gradual effect upon Signac's own works as he became the main spokesperson for this manner of painting, as some of the older disciples drifted away and other new recruits appeared. The painstakingly precise brushwork which Signac had employed during Seurat's lifetime, which seemed almost scientific and was based on juxtapositions of colour informed by theories regarding visual perception, now gave way to increasingly large dabs of colour, as is clearly the case in Sainte-Anne. There is a more painterly feel to this picture than to the Kröller-Müller work, which was painted only two years after Seurat's death. These larger tesserae of colour result in a mosaic of brushstrokes; while the colours interact in the way pioneered by Neo-Impressionism, each one is given more emphasis, hinting at the Divisionism and even the Fauvism that would emerge around this time, in large part influenced by Signac's example.
Signac's Neo-Impressionism, both during Seurat's lifetime and afterwards, had aimed to augment the naturalistic depiction of a scene, using scientific techniques and colour theories to heighten its effect. This is clear in Sainte-Anne in the use of purples to give a sense of shadow and darkness, especially within the trunks of the trees and throughout the largely green areas of the leaves. Signac has used these flecks of colour to create effects that heighten the sense of chiaroscuro, enriching this image of evening falling. This was in some way a struggle to give colour more power; after all, in 1889, he had written to Van Gogh himself complaining that 'Our Veronese Green and our cobalt blue' were no match for 'these Mediterranean waves'' (Signac, quoted in L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh, The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, Vol. 4, Arles 1888-1889, New York, 2009, p. 426). Through the mosaic-like composition of paintings like Sainte-Anne, Signac is shifting the battle of colourism to a different plain.