‘I always experience a very painterly emotion in front of Signac’s canvases. I like to look at them close up as much as from far away. There’s a play of hues in them as ravishing as happy combinations of gems, and it is his alone.’ – Henri Edmond Cross
(quoted in J. Leighton, ‘Out of Seurat’s Shadow: Signac, 1863-1935, An Introduction’, in M. Feretti-Bocquillon, et. al., Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 20).
‘The division is a complex system of harmony, an aesthetic rather than a technique. The point is but a means.’ – Paul Signac
(Signac, D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, ed. F. Cachin, Paris, 1978, p. 119).
With its shimmering, opalescent surface and intricate play of colour, Paul Signac’s 1908 composition Venise. Le Rédempteur bursts with radiant light and dynamic reflections, capturing the unique, ethereal atmosphere for which the city was renowned. Signac had first journeyed to Venice in 1904, drawn to its waterways, winding streets, and ornate architecture by his reading of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, and was immediately dazzled by its blend of water, sky and the urban environment. The artist returned during the spring of 1908, making the city the final stop on a grand tour through Italy with his wife Berthe, which had featured visits to in Camogli and Portofino, Florence, Siena and Rome. Staying on the lively Riva degli Schiavoni, the artist immersed himself once again in the spectacles of the city on the lagoon, creating numerous watercolour studies of his experiences, in which he recorded fleeting effects and reflections, architectural details and picturesque scenes that caught his attention as he wandered along the endless network of alleyways and canals. Unlike his earlier trip, in which the artist had largely focused on the famous vistas and monuments emblematic of Venice, Signac now trained his eye on the more secluded corners of the city, adopting unusual, often spontaneous viewpoints and lesser known sites for his compositions.
Celebrating the effervescent atmosphere and unique play of light that characterise La Serenissima, Venise. Le Rédempteur captures the contrast between the monumentality of the city’s iconic architecture and the apparent immateriality of its location, blurring the lines between the shimmering surface of the waterways and the built environment of the floating city. At its heart stands the stark white façade of the monumental Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, also known as Il Redentore (The Redeemer), a sixteenth-century Franciscan church on the Giudecca constructed to the designs of Palladio.
Built as a votive offering for the safe deliverance of the city during the plague of 1575-77, the church was an important focal point within the ritual life of Venice, as the site of an annual pilgrimage during which the Doge travelled across the Canale della Giudecca on a temporary bridge of boats to attend a thanksgiving service in the church. Here, the artist captures a snapshot of the more typical day-to-day life of this portion of the canal, as a small group of bragozzi, each adorned with an Italian flag atop their masts, traverse the waterway, their overlapping forms lending the composition a dynamic sense of movement as they enter, leave and take rest in the bustling waterways. Signac’s visions of Venice were filtered through a prism of art historical references, shaped by the maritime vistas of Cannaletto and the delicate visions of J. M. W. Turner. In the foreground, a single gondola bobs on the gently rippling water, its elegant arabesques and elongated profile offering a striking visual counterpoint to the robust hull of the neighbouring ship, an addition that also subtly references the city’s flourishing tourism industry.
There is a distinctly idyllic atmosphere within Signac’s Venetian views from this trip, an approach which Maurice Denis described as ‘reasoned romanticism,’ in which the artist married the cool, methodical nature of his pointillist style with a luxurious sense of colour and light. (Denis, quoted in J. Leighton, ‘Out of Seurat’s Shadow: Signac, 1863-1935, An Introduction’, in M. Feretti-Bocquillon, et. al., Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 20). The extreme precision of George Seurat’s pointillist technique had exerted a powerful influence upon Signac’s art during the early years of their friendship, transforming his painterly style into rigorous studies on the nature of perception, colour and light. However, following Seurat’s death in 1891, Signac’s style gradually began to shift away from meticulously co-ordinated points of colour, and became more concerned with achieving a rich chromatic brilliance and a sense of overall harmony in his compositions. As John Leighton has written, ‘If [Signac’s] earlier Neo-Impressionism was an art of renunciation and restraint, his mature style is rich, luxuriant, and sensual… The finest of these later canvases are impressive performances, with a few simple elements orchestrated into extraordinary optical effects. Freed from the burden of description, colour takes on its own exuberant life’ (J. Leighton, in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 19).
Throughout the opening years of the twentieth century, the small dots of pigment gave way to thicker, stronger strokes of lustrous paint, applied in tesserae-like blocks that reverberate across the composition’s surface. A number of commentators at the time likened Signac’s brushwork to the glittering mosaics of pre-Renaissance Italy and Byzantium, an analogy further strengthened by Signac himself in his influential treatise D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme, comparing the effects of his canvases to monumental decorative schemes: ‘These canvases, which restore the light to the walls of our modern apartments, which enshrine pure colours in rhythmic lines, which share the charm of Oriental rugs, mosaics and tapestries, are not these decorations also?’ (Signac, D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme, Paris, 1911, p. 88). Venise. Le Rédempteur is a superbly accomplished example of Signac’s mature painterly style, the intricate dance of blues and greens, punctuated by gem-like dashes of pinks and lilac, suggesting the evocative, dazzling effects of sunlight on the lagoon.