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.
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.
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,’
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
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.’
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
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
‘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.’
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
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