Paul Signac (1863-1935)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Paul Signac (1863-1935)

Saint-Tropez, fontaine des Lices

Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Saint-Tropez, fontaine des Lices
signed and dated 'P. Signac 95' (lower left)
oil on canvas
25½ x 32 in. (65 x 81 cm.)
Painted in 1895
René Keller, Paris (acquired from the artist); sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 24 February 1926, lot 103.
Gaston Lévy, Paris (1928).
Robert Mirault, Paris.
Jean Martouret, Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Anon. sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 10 December 1980, lot 36.
Private collection, Miami.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 20 May 1982, lot 231.
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago.
The Searle Collection, Chicago; sale, Christie's, New York, 10 May 1989, lot 15.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Gazette des Beaux-Arts, July-September 1949 (illustrated, fig. 16).
F. Cachin, P. Signac, Paris, 1971, p. 57 (illustrated, p. 63).
C. Frèches-Thory, "Paul Signac, Acquisitions récentes" in La Revue du Louvre, 1983, p. 35.
M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, "Peintures. Dessins et aquarels" in Signac & Saint-Tropez, 1992, p. 60 (illustrated in color).
T. Chabanne, "Plein cap sur Signac" in Beaux-Arts, July-August 1992, pp. 70-71 (illustrated in color).
P. Daix, "Signac à Saint-Tropez" in Le Quotidien de Paris, 16 July 1992, p. 18.
J.-M. Tasset, "Signac à point" in Le Figaro, 21 July 1992, p. 19.
F. Cachin, Signac, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Paris, 2000, p. 222, no. 281 (illustrated).
Paris, Palais des Arts Libéraux, Exposition de la Société des Artistes Indépendants, April-May 1897, no. 1092.
Berlin, Galerie Goldschmidt & Co., Paul Signac Sonderausstellung, February-March 1927, no. 3.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Exposition Paul Signac, May 1930, no. 13 (illustrated).
Amsterdam, Kunsthandel Huinck & Scherjon, November 1935, no. 6 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Exposition Signac, 1950.
Poitiers, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Exposition Signac et Marquet, June-July 1955, no. 21.
Paris, Galerie de Paris, Les Amis de Saint-Tropez, May-June 1961, no. 82.
Saint-Tropez, Musée de l'Annonciade and Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Signac et Saint-Tropez, June-December 1992, no. 8.
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianada, Exposition Paul Signac, June-November 2003, p. 78, no. 29 (illustrated in color, p. 79).
Special notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

Lot Essay

The present canvas was painted in 1895, during a critical period of change and realignment for Signac. Since 1886, when Seurat exhibited his masterpiece La Grande Jatte at the eighth and final Impressionist show and then at the Salon des Indépendants, effectively launching the Neo-Impressionist movement, Signac had been a leader and driving force for this new artistic vision. Seurat had conceived the theory and practice of Neo-Impressionism as a scientific, rational, and technical corrective to the Impressionists' instinctive and spontaneous treatment of nature. Rejecting the irregular brushwork of Monet and his circle, Seurat advocated a more calculated and systematic application of pigment, governed by the principles of color theory. Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, and many others began to apply Seurat's novel and controversial methods, yet it was the enthusiastic and outgoing Signac who held the Neo-Impressionist group together and generated a sense of shared identity. A dedicated advocate, interpreter, and promulgator, he was dubbed the "Saint Paul of Neo-Impressionism" by Thadée Natanson, publisher of the avant-garde periodical La Revue Blanche (quoted in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 107). He established connections, organized exhibitions, lobbied for reviews, and was the active president of the Société des Artistes Indépendants from 1909 until his death in 1935. As a friend of the color theorist Charles Henry, he also designed the illustrations for Henry's theoretical treatise Cercle chromatique et rapporteur esthétique of 1888. John Leighton has written, "He was a tireless and talented promoter, a powerhouse of enthusiasm. Where there was friction, he was often either the cause or the mediator. Where there was success, Signac was often behind it. In a remarkably short time Paul Signac had moved from being an enthusiastic amateur on the fringes of Impressionism to a prominent role at the center of the Parisian avant-garde" (ibid., p. 8).

When Seurat died unexpectedly in 1891, Signac found himself at a crossroads in his career. He was deeply affected by his colleague's death and seems to have been aware of the need to fill the void in the avant-garde that now threatened. At the same time, he increasingly aspired to establish his own artistic identity, applying Neo-Impressionist tenets in a less dogmatic way. In February 1892, he traveled to Brussels for an exhibition honoring Seurat that he had organized with the Belgian Neo-Impressionist Théo Van Rysselberghe at Les XX, an association of avant-garde artists. The next month, Signac, an accomplished yachtsman, set sail from Finistère in his boat, the Olympia (fig. 1). Traveling via the Canal du Midi and Marseilles, he arrived in early May at Saint-Tropez, a rustic fishing port on the Mediterranean coast. In a letter to his mother, he recounted, "I am settled here since yesterday and overjoyed. 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. In the background the blue silhouettes of the Maures and the Esterel--there is enough material to work on for the rest of my days. Happiness--that is what I have just discovered" (quoted in ibid., p. 172). For the next two decades, he would divide his time between Saint-Tropez and Paris, with periods of extensive travel in France and abroad. Although the capital remained the commercial outlet for his work and the center of his efforts to promote Neo-Impressionism, Saint-Tropez provided him with the space and tranquility to develop his art, safely removed from what he described as "this Paris and its so-called intellectual crap" (quoted in ibid., p. 172).

Over the course of his first three years at Saint-Tropez, Signac's work underwent important changes. Urban subjects disappeared almost immediately from his oeuvre, replaced by the timeless landscape of his Provençal refuge. He also began to experiment with watercolor, which would become an increasingly important part of his work. In 1894, he informed Félix Fénéon that he had stopped painting directly from nature, opting instead to compose landscapes in the studio on the basis of watercolor sketches made en plein air. Direct observation and rigorous scrutiny of the motif, he had come to believe, represented "a kind of slavishness," and he sought to replace "the hard and useful period of analysis" with "that of personal and varied creation," as he wrote in his journal (quoted in ibid., p. 16). Most notably, Signac adopted a less restrictive and doctrinaire approach to Neo-Impressionism (or Divisionism, as he preferred to call it), freeing the way for his personal maturation as a colorist. He abandoned the theories of Charles Henry, whom he did not even cite in his 1899 treatise D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, and he began to apply color in angled, tessera-like strokes instead of Seurat's tiny dots, which he now saw as inimical to brightness in a painting. Whereas the dot, Signac found, contributed to an overall graying effect when used in a work of any substantial size, a larger and more flexible brushstroke enhanced the effect that one pure color creates when placed next to another. In 1894, Signac explained, "Several years ago I, too, tried very hard to prove to others, through scientific experiments, that these blues, these yellows, these greens were to be found in nature. Now I content myself with saying: I paint like that because it is the technique which seems to me the most apt to give the most harmonious, the most luminous and the most colorful result... and because I like it that way" (quoted in ibid., p. 16).

The present canvas demonstrates the effect of this new approach. It depicts the place des Lices at the heart of Saint-Tropez, which even today has retained its rural character (fig. 2). Signac noted in his journal on 5 July 1895 that he had begun to make preparatory studies for a painting of this site; two oil sketches survive, one horizontal in format and the other vertical (Cachin, nos. 282-283; Sold Christie's London, 29 November 1995, lot 123). Signac had already painted the place des Lices in 1893, focusing on the supple arabesques of an allée of large plane trees, backlit by the late afternoon sun (Cachin, no. 248; fig. 3). In the present canvas, Signac retained a single plane tree, but balanced it at the right by a man-made structure: the ornamental stone fountain in the place des Lices, from which two women draw water in large, globular jugs. In the middle distance is a row of stately cypruses, their repetitive, linear forms contrasting with the sinuous silhouette of the plane tree. The composition is structured in two broad, contrasting zones of color: cool blues (with contrasting pink accents) in the foreground suggesting shadow, and golden yellow (tempered by deep green) beyond evoking the heat of the southern sun. Leighton has written about the paintings from this period, "Signac simplified the design and structure of his pictures, relying increasingly on the play of color across the canvas as both the architecture and the drama of his compositions. Each touch of color was brought into careful conspiracy with its neighbor in elaborate sequences of contrasts and relationships. The purity in each stroke, the angle and patterning of the touches, the play of warm against cool colors, these became his painterly preoccupations" (ibid., p. 18).

The theme of women filling their hydriae at a fountain or spring-- which Signac had explored once before, in his first major canvas from Saint-Tropez (Cachin, no. 234; fig. 4)--enjoyed a long tradition in western art by the late nineteenth century. This fact was surely not lost on Signac, whose 1899 treatise espouses the Neo-Impressionist movement by placing it within a rich historical context. Poussin had treated the subject in canvases such as Eliezar and Rebecca at the Well (1648), which Signac would have known from the Louvre. It features too in the work of the neoclassical muralist Puvis de Chavannes (e.g. At the Fountain, circa 1869; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), whose seventieth birthday celebration Signac attended in January 1895, just months before he painted the present canvas. Kenneth Silver has explained, "The theme is La Source, that old pun in art that means at once a spring or stream; the 'source' of artistic inspiration, the 'stream' of civilized humanity at which one is nourished and replenished; and, of course, in its strictly allegorical incarnation, the female form which embodies La Source, both as a muse and as the origin of biological life" (Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 277). In 1921, when Picasso was seeking inspiration and rejuvenation in the art of the past, it was to this theme that he turned, producing the classicizing manifesto Trois femmes à la fontaine (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 322; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). In the present canvas, by contrast, Signac has transposed the venerated theme to the present day, trading antique drapery for fashionable modern dress. He was evidently pleased with the results, for he selected the painting as one of four to include in the 1897 exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, all of them scenes of Saint-Tropez.

The practical rather than doctrinaire approach to the aims of Neo-Impressionism that Signac adopted at Saint-Tropez made him an important catalyst in progressive painting for years to come. Matisse, for example, had eagerly read Signac's treatise D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme when it was published in installments in 1898. At Signac's invitation, Matisse stayed at Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904, painting canvases that anticipate the radical Fauve works that he would create the following year at Collioure. Most notable is Luxe, calme et volupté (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which was interpreted by critics and fellow artists alike as Matisse's formal declaration of Divisionist allegiance when it was exhibited in the spring of 1905. In the closing words of D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, Signac had laid down an open challenge for the next generation of artists: "And if there has not yet appeared among them the artist who, by his genius, will be able to exploit [the Neo-Impressionists'] technique to the full, they will at least have helped to simplify his task. This triumphant colorist has only to show himself: his palette has been prepared for him" (quoted in F. Ratliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, New York, 1996, p. 285). Signac's words were prophetic in their anticipation of the direction that the nascent Fauves, Matisse foremost among them, would soon take, as they became drawn to and let themselves be guided by the tenets of Neo-Impressionism.

(fig. 1) Signac on the quay, Saint-Tropez, circa 1895.

Barcode: 29175314

(fig. 2) The place des Lices, Saint-Tropez.

(fig. 3) Paul Signac, Les Platanes, 1893. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Barcode: 29175307

(fig. 4) Paul Signac, Femmes au puits, 1892. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Barcode: 29175291

More from Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale

View All
View All