Contemplative and of an historicizing bent of mind in the years following the premature death of his friend and mentor Georges Seurat in 1891, Signac composed what would become a manifesto for the Neo-Impressionist cause. Published as D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme in 1899 and dedicated to the memory of Seurat, Signac's treatise consolidated the Neo-Impressionist aesthetic around its founding principles of divided color and scientific method. He cited the movement's precedents, vigorously argued its aims and proudly stated its achievements. The text gave renewed visibility to the Neo-Impressionists's aesthetic program, and in its closing words Signac laid down an open and ultimately prophetic challenge for the generation of artists just on the horizon. He declared, "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 colourist has only to show himself: his palette has been prepared for him" (in "From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism," F. Ratliff, trans. and ed., Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, New York, 1996, p. 285). Signac's words were prescient in their anticipation of the direction that the nascent Fauves, Matisse pre-eminent among them, would soon take, as they became drawn to and let themselves be guided by the tenets of Neo-Impressionism. Signac's articulate advocacy of Neo-Impressionist color theory and painting techniques had been critical to the initial success of the movement two decades earlier, when Seurat was alive. So it was again at this watershed moment in the development of early modernism, as his ideas inspired an entirely new generation of progressive painters.
Neo-Impressionism, as practiced by Signac after 1900, was more no mere historical way-station through which the younger circle of Fauve painters passed on their way to the dawn of a new modernism. It was in its own right a vibrant and vital approach to painting, and in Signac's masterly hands it continued to evolve, demonstrating a remarkable freshness, resilience and flexibility in both its theory and practice. Signac responded in kind to the attention of the younger men. His painting over the following decade, far from mechanically illustrating his theory by rote, would reveal a keenly sensitive awareness of the work that his young protégés were then placing before the public. A consummate work from this period, La Corne d'or bridges Signac's earlier, theoretical understanding of Neo-Impressionism with his more liberal application of its principles in his mature period. Taking a cue here not only from Matisse but also from the popular "Byzantomania" that was then sweeping France, Signac created a brightly harmonious seascape out of Oriental color and Mediterranean light--a pictorial synopsis of his fertile and far-ranging frame of mind in 1907.
In the regrouping period following Seurat's death, Signac's less dogmatic approach to theory would speed his personal maturation as a colorist and augur in the later, more liberal phase of Neo-Impressionism. Already by 1894 Signac would declare, "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 J. Leighton, "Out of Seurat's Shadow: Signac, 1863-1935, An Introduction," Paul Signac, 1863-1935, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 16). This new confidence in his craft, and a greater openness to the subjective possibilities of color, point to his later interest in "more abstract notions of harmony and in the expressive power of color He emphasized that the painter was a poet and a creator, not a scientist, following Fénéon's observation that 'we are in a studio, not a laboratory'" (ibid., pp. 9-10). Indeed, his compliment to Délacroix--"Color for the sake of color, with no other pretext!"--seems a tacit justification for the new pictorial freedoms he claimed for himself (in "From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism," F. Ratliff, op. cit., p. 235).
Perhaps the signal catalyst to Signac's development after 1900 was his acquaintance with the newly emergent Fauves and particularly with Matisse, whom he met in the winter of 1903-04 and to whom he subsequently extended an invitation to Saint-Tropez, where he kept a villa and a forty-five-foot-long studio situated above the sea. "The azure light floods in from the vast bay," wrote Signac's friend and pupil Lucie Cousturier, "abolishing the materiality, the volume of objects, reducing them to subtly differentiated patches against the great pale walls. Signac places his canvas, so to speak, on the sky to paint his colours, and as he works, he conducts a continuous dialogue with space" (quoted in H. Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, New York, 1998, p. 283). It was into this environment that Signac welcomed Matisse during the summer of 1904, and courted him as a potential convert to the Neo-Impressionist cause. Signac's influence would surface in Matisse's work after the latter returned to Paris that fall, most decisively in Luxe, calme et volupté (fig. 1), which was shown the following spring at the 1905 exhibition of the Société des Artists Indépendants. "Interpreted by both critics and fellow painters as Matisse's formal declaration of Divisionist allegiance," Spurling notes, Luxe, calme et volupté was acquired by Signac for "500 francs in gold and 500 francs in painting" (ibid., p. 285). Matisse selected Signac's La Maison Verte (Venise) (Cachin, no. 417) as payment in kind.
Signac had two enduring passions--painting and yachting--and he combined them as often as he could, availing himself at every opportunity to visit and paint the great ports and maritime cities of Europe. Signac traveled by train to Constantinople in the late spring of 1907 with the Neo-Impressionist painter Henri Person (fig. 2). He was enthusiastic about both the country and its people, noting in his sketchbook, "I have seen things and men, both admirable and new, something which is rare!" (quoted in Signac, exh. cat., Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2001, p. 80). He was enchanted by the "shrouded northern light against a background of Oriental color," he recorded in his sketchbook. "One thinks somewhat of London, Rotterdam, or Venice. Above all, it is Turnerian" (quoted in F. Cachin, Paul Signac, Greenwich, Conn., 1971, p. 95). In a letter to Felix Fénéon dated 28 December 1907, Signac mused, "One learns through traveling: in returning I 'saw' my Constantinople 50 at which I had exhausted myself and I decided to begin again on a blank canvas. It's the first time that such an experience has happened to me. But having used a lot of zinc white that doesn't dry because of the yellows, I couldn't scrape or dibble in it without ruining it. One month of work wasted...no, as perhaps the second version [the present painting] will be better than the first" (quoted in F. Cachin, cat. rais., op. cit., p. 287).
The significance of this particular compositional arrangement is attested by a large preparatory drawing, La Mosquée de Sainte Sophie (fig. 3), related paintings (e.g., fig. 4), and by a second letter Signac wrote to Fénéon on 8 February 1908, seeking his judgment: "I am anxious to have your opinion on La Corne d'or 50. I tried to make it more colorful, in oriental, silky tones, or like the handles of a cimiterre (without having any literary pretension). Cross liked it, but what about you?" (ibid.). Signac would revisit this subject over the next few years--notably, in Constantinople (Corne d'or), which he painted two years later (fig. 5)--and its persistence in his mind may resonate with a broader contemporary fascination with the historical legacy of Byzantium.
Specifically, Signac's interest in Constantinople may have been stimulated by what J. B. Bullen has described as the "proliferation of information about Byzantine culture" in France beginning in the 1890s and rising to a peak of cultural "Byzantomania" by 1912 ("Byzantinism and Modernism, 1900-14," The Burlington Magazine 141, no. 1160, November 1999, p. 665). On the occasion of the eighth annual exhibition of the International Society in London in 1908, which included works by Signac, Roger Fry would interestingly defend the Neo-Impressionists by drawing a historical comparison to the art of Byzantium: "Impressionism has existed before, in the Roman art of the Empire, and it too was followed, as I believe inevitably, by a movement similar to that observable in the Neo-Impressionists--we may call it for convenience Byzantinism... It is probably a mistake to suppose, as is usually done, that Byzantinism was due to a loss of the technical ability to be realistic, consequent upon barbarian invasions. In the Eastern empire there was never any loss of technical skill; indeed, nothing could surpass the perfections of some Byzantine craftsmanship. Byzantinism was the necessary outcome of Impressionism, a necessary and inevitable reaction from it" (quoted in ibid., p. 669). The tendency of Byzantine art toward the decorative and the abstract made an apt analogy to the Neo-Impressionist project, as did Fry's later comparison between the Byzantine mosaicists and the picture surface of Neo-Impressionist art.
Indeed, in La Corne d'or, we see the truth of Signac's assertion that aesthetics, rather than science, were important to him: "Divisionism is a complex system of harmony, an aesthetic rather than a technique. The point (dot) is only a means" (in "From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism," F. Ratliff, op. cit., p. 260). By 1907, the divisionist points have become tesserae, and in the variegated surface of La Corne d'or we see an all-over decorative patterning that takes its cue from the composite surface of Byzantine mosaics. Signac's faceted surfaces radically update his Byzantine sources by introducing more powerful harmonies through the substitution of pure color for gold, a borrowing mediated by his simultaneous study of Fauvist painting. The breakdown of form into discrete blocks of color in Signac's mature divisionist canvases would become a point of origin for abstraction, developed by Matisse in an colorist vein and also by certain of the Cubists (Metzinger, Delaunay and Herbin), for whom an apprenticeship in Neo-Impressionism would inspire more radical fragmentations of visual form.
As paraphrased by Leighton, in 1907 Maurice Denis "described Signac's later work, with its combination of graded color and sentiment, as a form of 'reasoned romanticism,' opposed to what he called the scientific naturalism of his earlier Neo-Impressionism" (in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 2001, p. 19). His observations hold true in the majestic La Corne d'or, a radiant vision of the historic stretch of water and busy shipping route that divides the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and the meeting point of the European and Asian continents. He presents the viewer with an image of the Golden Horn, the mosques, and sailing ships that is filled with joy, with a pure enthusiasm for the scene in all its aspects. In the foreground small boats float on tranquil waters, set against the historic Galatea bridge and the city's famed mosques, their spiraling minarets rising up in the far distance. Signac's view of the city is taken from the Asian side, or European quarter, looking across the water to the port, where the skyline is dominated by the great mosques of Aya Sofya, Sultanahmed, and Suleymaniye (fig. 6).
Painted in warm golden tones and carnation-pink highlights, La Corne d'or is exuberant in its color harmonies, striking a lyrical balance between discrete taches of color and their smooth integration into the lustrous picture surface. Drawing on a Fauvist understanding of expressive color, almost if not quite liberated here from the forms defined by its subjects, Signac casts an incandescent, romantic glow over the Constantinople harbor, and echoes its Byzantine architecture in his ornamental handling of the paint. "I always experience a very painterly emotion in front of Signac's canvases," Henry Edmond Cross wrote to fellow Neo-Impressionist Theo van Rysselberghe. "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" (op. cit., p. 20).
Seventy-five years after Signac's interlude in Constantinople, Robert Swanson paid tribute to his Byzantine voyage in "Looking at a Painting of Constantinople by Paul Signac," a poem that viscerally captures the rich and undulating experience of looking at La Corne d'or:
The minarets spire vaguely through a mosaic
of small shells of paint: like oyster-shells.
mussels, abalone. But these odd, green waters
have no odor, no dark movement under the surface.
When we step back from the canvas, the shells
blur, fade, become a sea-mist, through which we
see the unreal city. Boats without oarsmen,
yachts without tillers, mosques without muezzins.
Any sound we could hear over these waters would
seem like a sigh. This sea is not a sea, with
foam and wave, but a gauzy veil taking on the
light of green yachts, the reflection of white
minarets, grey domes, beige walls. And the city
is not a haven we reach after a pleasant voyage;
but a mirage we gaze at, starving, thirsting.
(The Hudson Review 35, no. 4, Winter 1982-83, pp. 578-79)
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Luxe, calme et volupté, 1904-05. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 26015576
(fig. 2) Photograph of Signac in Constantinople, 1907. BARCODE 18406559
(fig. 3) Paul Signac, La Mosquée de Sainte Sophie, 1907. Private collection. BARCODE 18406702
(fig. 4) Paul Signac, La Corne d'or. Les Minarets, 1907. Private collection, Munich (Cachin, no. 454). BARCODE 26015583
(fig. 5) Paul Signac, Constantinople (Corne d'or), 1909. Sold, Christie's London, June 2007, lot 10. BARCODE 25245554REWORKED
(fig. 6) Photograph of Santa Sophia mosque and fishing boats on the shore of the Bosphorus, Istanbul, circa 1890. BARCODE 20293383