In the catalogue entry Signac prepared for the inclusion of Le ponton de la Félicité. Asnières in the third Salon des Indépendants during March-May 1887, he noted after its title the place and date he painted it, “Asnières, octobre 1886.” It is among the final landscapes he painted that year, before the onset of winter. He then turned to the large interior composition depicting his parents and their servant, La salle à manger, his largest, most important painting to date (Cachin, no. 136; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), which he completed early the following year; he placed it, too, in the third Salon that spring. Signac would exhibit in every Salon des Indépendants from its inception in 1884–he was one the organization’s youthful co-founders and henceforth its most ardent advocate and constant participant–until 1935, the year before his death.
Signac completed Le ponton de la Félicité. Asnières during the very first year he had been working in a novel technique, a venturesome idea to which he had been converted and then fully committed himself by the spring of 1886. Georges Seurat developed and was practicing a new way of painting, seen tentatively at first in small studies during the early 1880s, then more advanced in Une baignade, Asnières, 1883-1884, his first masterwork (at age 25), which had deeply impressed Signac (not yet 21) at the first Salon des Indépendants in 1884. Signac observed Seurat at work on his next pioneering project, Une dimanche à la Grande Jatte, completed in October 1885, and shown twice the following year—in the eighth and final Impressionist group exhibition in the spring of 1886 (to which Signac contributed fifteen pictures), and with the Indépendants in the early fall. Signac became one of Seurat’s few close friends; he was present at and contributed to the genesis of the latter’s controversial theories, practice, and influence, which transformed the new art of the late 19th century, and seeded nearly every manner of avant-garde modern painting in the 20th.
Observers liked to term Seurat’s method pointillisme, drawing attention to the countless tiny dots of paint he employed in composing his imagery. Emphasizing instead the science behind their practice, in the optical theories of Charles Blanc, M.-E. Chevreul, Charles Henry, and Ogden Rood, Signac initially favored Seurat’s term chromo-luminarisme, to underscore how pure color may be manipulated to recreate the perceived effects of light. Signac then promulgated the term “divisionism” to describe how pure colors are laid side by side in small strokes–they need not be dots, as he later made clear—which the viewer mixes optically to appreciate the local chromatic contrasts that comprise and animate the sum tonal effect of the picture.
The critic Félix Fénéon coined and publicized the term “neo-impressionist” to characterize the artists and their work in this radical new approach to painting. Moving beyond the ways and means of Impressionism during the previous decade, the “Neos”—as the movement’s adherents thereafter nicknamed themselves–sought to reveal a more profoundly cognizant method for painting the realities of modern life, not based on the artist’s instantaneous, subjective sensation before the motif, as in typical Impressionist practice, but within an objective, scientifically-based discipline, based on immutable natural laws, that focused not on the transitory aspect of human experience and perception, but as Blanc wrote, “the ideal...the primitive beauty of things... the imperishable character, the pure essence...[the artist] removes from this beauty the unessential part, time, in order to make it appear in the eternity of life” (quoted in R. L. Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1968, p. 17).
Before the spring of 1886 the auto-didact Signac had been painting like an Impressionist. In May 1884 he met with Monet, his self-appointed model, to ask the veteran artist’s advice. What transpired is unknown; Monet would normally tell an aspiring young painter he must find his own way. “Our friendship dates from that day,” Signac later wrote. “It lasted until his death” (quoted in Signac, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 299).
With money from an inheritance Signac acquired several Cézannes from Père Tanguy. He was already thinking outside the parameters of classic Impressionism when, on the day after his discussion with Monet, he met Seurat at the first Salon des Indépendants, where the latter was showing La Baignade. They saw each other and corresponded regularly while Seurat was working on La Grande Jatte; in June 1886 Seurat moved into a studio next door to Signac’s address on the boulevard de Clichy at the edge of Montmartre. Signac introduced Pissarro to Seurat in the spring of 1885. Taking heavy fire from his erstwhile colleagues, Pissarro joined the cause of scientific painting, and completed his first pointillist canvases in early 1886. His authoritative example convinced Signac that this was the road he must take in his art. Within a couple of months his own initial, fully-fledged forays in this manner were underway.
During the spring, summer, and fall of 1886 Signac painted along the Seine, as far downstream as Les Andelys in Normandy (Cachin, nos. 119-128), but also closer to Paris, in Clichy (nos. 117-118) and–as in the present painting–in Asnières, the suburban river town where his parents lived, immediately northwest of the capital, only ten minutes by train from the Gare-Saint-Lazare. Asnières since the 1850s was a favorite recreation area for weekend yachting and rowing, picnicking, dining, and dancing. For his motif Signac chose “Le ponton de la Félicité,” the floating dock, anchored by a gangway to the bank on the Asnières side of the Seine, for a namesake excursion boat.
As Signac demonstrated during his sojourns the previous two summers in Port-en-Bessin and Saint-Briac on the Channel coast (Cachin, nos. 63-76 and 92-108), he was keen on painting water subjects. The surface of the Seine in Le ponton mirrors an overcast sky, generating an overall aura of silvery luminescence, silhouetting the forms of the two yachts, one daringly cropped at the upper left edge, while the near and distant banks of the river, aligned with the dock and boom of that left-hand sailboat, form an arching arabesque across the width of the scene. The boats’ masts supply vertical accents that section and balance the composition. While suggesting space and distance, the effect overall, as in a Japanese print, is decorative and flat. The divisionist technique was ideally suited to lending a vibrating, atomized, but integrated and harmonized intensity to the contending zones of colored light and shadow in a Neo-Impressionist canvas.
Signac, a student of Blanc’s Grammaire des Arts du Dessin, has here introduced into his pictorial paradigm elements of a calculated compositional design, an abstract harmony, that an Impressionist would rarely–if ever—so consciously and deliberately conceive within a plein air canvas, quickly painted. This is the most significant “neo-” aspect in Neo-Impressionism, in which the artist, the ideal forms he has envisioned in his motif leading the way, transfigures the long-accepted conventions of naturalist representation into a compelling impetus toward abstraction, in which color is an end in itself, to create a new kind of art on the verge of a new century.