Signac, Caillebotte and their joy at being on the water

The Impressionists are often associated with their dazzling depictions of light on water. Yet two in particular — Paul Signac and Gustave Caillebotte — ‘were equally at home at the helm of a yacht and in front of their easels’, says specialist Keith Gill

The popularity of sailing as a leisurely pastime exploded in France during the 19th century. Amateurs and professionals alike would spend weekends at rowing clubs along the banks of the Seine and at coastal regattas during the summer. By 1875, there were 37 registered French organisations dedicated to the sport.

The 1870s was also the decade in which the Impressionists began making waves in the art world. Renoir, Manet, Morisot and Monet, whose picture of the port of Le Havre, Impression, Soleil Levant, provided the collective with its name, were all drawn to river banks and shorelines in search of new motifs.

Yet among the Impressionists, two figures stand out as particular aficionados of sailing: Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). ‘Both equally at home at the helm of a yacht and in front of their easels, their work captured the sense of adventure and freedom embodied by the sport,’ explains Keith Gill, Christie’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale.


Paul Signac, in the foreground, on his boat Olympia, circa 1895. Photo: © Archives Signac

Signac purchased his first boat while still a teen, and by his mid-twenties was painting the bridges of Paris from the hull of his catboat, Le Tub. ‘Signac had a mariner’s eye for the details of cresting waves and bobbing buoys,’ observes Gill.

In the spring of 1892, the 29-year-old Signac set sail for the south coast of France in order to leave behind the ‘intellectual crap’ of the Parisian art scene. He had been emotionally drained by the death of his close friend, the artist Georges Seurat, who had succumbed to diphtheria aged just 31. Signac had just finished mounting several posthumous shows of Seurat’s work while simultaneously settling his estate.

Signac travelled along the Atlantic Coast, through the Canal du Midi, and reached the provincial fishing town of Saint-Tropez in the second week of May after almost a month of sailing. ‘I am settled here since yesterday and overjoyed,’ he wrote to his mother. ‘Five minutes out of town, in the midst of pine trees and roses, I discovered a pretty little furnished cottage... In front of the golden coast of the gulf, the blue sea breaking on a small beach, my beach... and a good anchorage for the Olympia… there is enough material to work on for the rest of my days. Happiness — that is what I have just discovered.’ 

Signac’s arrival in Saint-Tropez marked a turning point in his career. ‘The rich, golden, crystalline light of Saint-Tropez was a welcome change for the artist, who had previously painted pale seascapes under the silvery coastal light of Cassis and Collioure, and the town’s harbour became a recurrent theme in his works,’ Gill explains.

Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez) (above) was one of the first works the artist completed after his arrival in the town. In this dazzling work water gently laps the hull of a fishing boat as the sun sets on the Riviera. It is a painting that has come to represent the important time the artist spent in Saint-Tropez, where he would eventually purchase a house and studio named La Hune.

‘The work epitomises how Signac came to see Saint-Tropez as a tranquil haven, untouched by encroaching industrialisation,’ says Gill. ‘The elegant curves of the tartane  fishing boat, sails full of the breeze at dusk, and the intricate, mosaic-like structure with the dots of blue, green, orange and yellow paint capturing the drama of the final golden rays of a day’s sun, highlight Signac’s mastery of pointillism. This vibrant painting with its flexible brushwork marks the transition into his joyful, luminous period.’

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Similarly, Gustave Caillebotte’s passion for boating was evident before his career took off; he grew up on the banks of the river Yerres where he watched the water-based traffic pass his family’s estate, and went on to become a keen rower.

By the 1870s boating had become a cornerstone of Caillebotte’s Impressionist oeuvre, and in 1878 he acquired his first racing yacht. He became one of the most influential sailors in France, a skilled boat designer, the financial backer of several important associations and publications dedicated to yachting, and co-president of the Cercle de la Voile sailing club in Paris, for which in 1892 he sponsored Signac’s application for membership.

Caillebotte’s Chemin montant (above) was painted in 1881 while the artist was vacationing in the smart seaside resort of Trouville on the Normandy coast, where each summer between 1880 and 1884 he would participate in local regattas. Unlike Saint-Tropez, the resort had already become popular among Parisians, and by the time the artist arrived it was furnished with cafés, casinos and villas.

Caillebotte painted more than 50 canvases of the landscape during his four summers in Trouville. Only five of those pictures — including this example — contain figures, and it has been suggested that the anonymous gentleman in this composition, dressed in his casual boating attire, could be Caillebotte himself.

‘This work is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Caillebotte’s oeuvre,’ continues Gill. ‘It combines his earlier figurative motifs with his later garden scenes, and was the only work from this period containing people that he exhibited during his lifetime. It also highlights the artist’s skill for creating bold and dynamic perspectives, which he perfected with his Parisian street scenes.’


Gustave Caillebotte at his naval architect’s drafting table, circa 1891-1892. Photograph by Martial Caillebotte

The painting disappeared after being exhibited in 1882. It resurfaced in Paris in 1930, and was unveiled to the public again in 1995 as part of the show Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist  at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Signac also exhibited Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez) within months of its completion — as part of a show dedicated to the work of the Neo-Impressionists. It was then gifted by the artist to his friend, the critic and playwright Georges Lecomte. In 2001 the work was chosen for the front cover of the catalogue for the artist’s landmark retrospective at the Grand Palais, Van Gogh Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gill describes the work as ‘the most important painting by the artist to come to auction in over 20 years.’

For both Signac and Caillebotte, seascapes and river views represented so much more than merely the beauty of the French landscape. As our specialist notes, ‘These works are personal records of each artist’s sense of joy at being on the water.’

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