Having worked for the previous two years in the divisionist method of Neo-Impressionism, Paul Signac further perfected this technique, while discovering those locales where he might apply its practice to best effect, in the fifteen oils he painted in the Breton fishing port of Portrieux during the summer of 1888. Located on the Côte d'Armor northwest of the provincial capital Saint-Brieuc, the site depicted here is now part of the popular seaside resort Saint-Quay-Portrieux. Signac was himself vacationing at that time, in the company of his future wife Berthe Roblès and the Symbolist poet Jean Ajalbert, whose book Sur les talus the artist had illustrated the previous year. “We decided to spend the summer at the same spot, taking up lodgings at a fisherman's, eating our meals with him,” Ajalbert later reminisced. “From Portrieux we sailed over to Jersey. An unforgettable vacation" (quoted in Signac, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 134).
Six of the pictures Signac painted that summer are loosely brushed preliminary studies executed on small wood panels (Cachin, nos. 170, 173-176, and 178 [the last related to the present painting]). The other nine are large-scale canvases in Signac's fully fledged, most rigorous Neo-Impressionist technique (nos. 164-169, 171-172, and 177 [the present work]). Following the custom he had initiated the previous year, the artist designated each of these major canvases with opus numbers (180-185 and 189-191), as if they were symphonic compositions orchestrated in colors. “7 op. from Portrieux (Cotes du N?rd ),” Signac summed up his stay in an 1890 exhibition catalogue entry. “Jetties, sloops, landmarks, yawls, semaphores, yachts, Icelandic schooner, shoals, lighthouses and beacons: synthesis of a small Breton port" (quoted in ibid.). He assigned to Portrieux. La Comtesse the number Opus 191. It is the culminating canvas in the 1888 sequence of Portrieux port scenes and seascapes, in which he achieved, as Françoise Cachin stated, “a balance and gentleness that he perhaps never again equaled” (op. cit., 2000, p. 30).
The distant focal point in this composition is the outcropping of rock, crowned with a military fortress and connected by a narrow spit to the mainland, known as L'Île de la Comtesse, named for the Comtesse des Thullais, the proprietress of the island at the end of the 18th century. In the foreground is the Plage de la Comtesse, an expanse of sandy beach still favored by tourists today, which offers a vantage point on the port to the east and for observing vessels as they enter the Bay of Saint-Brieuc. Against expansive color zones of strand, sea, and sky, Signac contrasted smaller-scaled and detailed landscape and marine motifs. The composition is remarkably spare and minimalist in conception, most daringly modernist for its time. In the simplicity and openness of the vast spaces, with the sole hint of animation suggested in the passage of the schooner in the distance, Signac evokes a profoundly contemplative sense of timeless serenity and boundless cosmic scale.
The model for Signac’s new approach to composition and method was Georges Seurat’s masterwork, completed when the artist was only 26, Un dimanche d'été à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte (Hauke no. 162; The Art Institute of Chicago), 1884-1885, premiered in the eighth and final Impressionist group exhibition in the spring of 1886. Seurat conceived the theory and practice of divisionism—later called Neo-Impressionism—as a scientific, rational, and technical corrective to the Impressionists’ instinctive and spontaneous treatment of nature. He advocated that the latest findings in color research, as revealed in the writings of Charles Blanc, Charles Henry, Michel-Eugéne Chevreul, and Ogden Rood, be applied to painting in a calculated and systematic manner. “The painter’s world is flat and depends on pigments; the scientist’s is three-dimensional and depends on light,” Robert L. Herbert explained. “The only way to reconcile the two is through the artificial conventions of art” (Georges Seurat, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 5).
To many at the time, Seurat’s method seemed absurdly contrived; the artist was ridiculed for his slow and painstaking application of little points of paint. While the Impressionists had employed painterly effects that captured the transience of the natural world, Seurat’s novel method created an atomized pictorial world that seemed to vibrate and scintillate in microcosm, while outwardly manifesting a static and inert demeanor. Seurat sought to reveal in his paintings the fundamental aspect of permanence in the material world, intimations of those essential qualities that lie behind the changing face of nature, as inherent in the very properties of art itself. Cézanne had set his sights on a similar, post-Impressionist vision of nature, which he pursued through very different means as a painter. Gauguin and the Symbolists were also on this track, although their journey took the more deliberately inward path of heightened subjectivity, seeking to experience the world and its meaning through the exaltation of the spirit.
History has generally cast Signac in the role of Seurat’s foremost disciple and apostle. He was, in fact, equally a leader and a driving force in the Neo-Impressionist movement. If Seurat had brought the “Word” of divisionism into the world, then Signac became—as Thadée Natanson declared—the "Saint Paul" of the new movement. Having painted his first Neo-Impressionist pictures in the spring of 1886, Signac acted as the leading advocate, interpreter, and promulgator of divisionism. A lively and innovative thinker, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, Signac was more articulate as a theorist than Seurat himself. His classic text, D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, first published in 1898 and widely re-printed in subsequent editions, became essential reading for understanding the role of color as it had evolved in painting from the early 19th century to the advent of the 20th.
Possessed of a powerfully positive and gregarious personality, Signac was utterly committed to the cause of Neo-Impressionism and eager to win recruits for it. “His generosity acted as a stimulant,” Hilary Spurling noted, “and his work opened up dazzling possibilities” (The Unknown Matisse, New York, 1998, p. 282). Signac soon sought to guide the practitioners of divisionism in the direction he believed the fundamental precepts of method and practice should lead them. Seurat had placed a major emphasis on the dotted, stitched technique as the primary means for achieving the optical mixture of color. Signac realized, as Seurat would eventually come to see, that the use of small marks did not necessarily enhance the luminosity of color. When viewed in a work of any substantial size, the resultant effect of optical mixture actually seemed quite dull, and contributed to an overall grayish aspect in the completed painting. Signac quickly came to favor a more flexible brushstroke of varying size and touch, appropriate to the motifs in the composition and even to the scale of the canvas to maximize the vivid interaction of pure colors and thus lend presence to the artist’s forms.
While Seurat and Signac shared a pioneering artistic agenda, and exhibited together, the two artists never worked side-by-side, as Pissarro and Cézanne had done in Pontoise during the mid-1870s, or as Van Gogh and Gauguin had attempted, with a catastrophic outcome, during the fall of 1888 in Arles. Signac and Seurat appeared to make a point of avoiding each other when they left Paris and were engaged in working campaigns elsewhere on site. During the summer of 1885 while Seurat was staying in Grandcamp, Signac was in Saint-Briac, still painting in an Impressionist manner. Seurat was active in Honfleur during 1886, while Signac moved along the Seine around Les Andeleys, where he completed his first divisionist landscapes.
While Seurat remained in Paris during 1887, Signac spent the summer painting in Collioure, his first seaside sojourn on the Mediterranean. In July 1888, as Seurat was painting his fine land- and seascapes in Port du Bessin, a Norman town that Signac had recommended to him, Signac was painting similar subjects in Portrieux, as seen here. When their paintings were exhibited side-by-side, critics noted “a fraternal communion of ideas.” However, as Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon has pointed out, "New tendencies emerge in [Signac's] landscapes. Their more intense colors and more delineated forms, perhaps better suited to his temperament, had significant impact on his later work" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 136).
While residing during the summer and early fall of 1887 in Collioure—a fishing village near the border with Spain—Signac successfully applied in four “Opus” canvases (nos. 164-167; Cachin, nos. 151 and 153-155) the chromatic subtlety of his new technique to project the crystalline light of the South. Nearly two decades later, Signac witnessed the sudden mutation of Neo-Impressionist colorism into the radical, revolutionary facture of Fauve modernism, once again a product of sun-drenched Collioure, in the explosive paintings of Matisse and Derain that stunned the public at the 1905 Salon d’Automne.
After Collioure, Signac was keen to treat the more subtle, silvery light of the C?tes du Nord during his next summer campaign. Favoring the wilder and more desolate terrain of the Breton coast to that of Normandy, Signac decided on Portrieux. Working within the confines of a relatively small geographical area, the artist sought to depict the variety of motifs he had discovered and come to know well, and from them to create a visual totality that would fully represent the character of the place. The Portrieux marines are among the most consistently pointilliste of Signac’s divisionist canvases. Here Signac developed a compositional manner that he would continue to pursue during the high tide of his Neo-Impressionism, a preference for establishing contrasts between large zones of color. Landscape masses serve as a kind of grand, natural architecture, in broad spaces that pulsate internally from the application of the divisionist brushwork—the resultant sensation of color generates the radiance of light. Signac returned to the Mediterranean the following summer, when he painted on the coast at Cassis.
The first owner of Portrieux. La Comtesse, as noted in Signac's cahier d'opus, was André Antoine, the founder and director of the avant-garde Théâtre Libre in Paris, which showed the latest plays of Maeterlinck, Hauptmann, Ibsen, and Strindberg, while employing playbills, posters, and décor created by leading modern artists. Antoine acquired this painting from Signac soon after the artist completed it, displaying the canvas in his theater from 1888 to around 1898.