With a kaleidoscopic array of vibrant colour, Marseille, le port is an exuberant painting that bursts with radiant light and movement. Taking as its subject one of Paul Signac’s favourite motifs, a maritime scene, the present work depicts the bustling port of Marseille. In the later phase of his career, Signac depicted the harbours of France with an unfaltering enthusiasm, a pursuit that enabled him to combine his two greatest passions: painting and sailing. A keen yachtsman, Signac savoured the mix of boats, water and people that populated the ports of towns and cities from Saint-Tropez, to Venice and Constantinople. Painted in 1934, the present work dates from the end of Signac’s distinguished career. The last painting listed in Françoise Cachin’s definitive catalogue raisonné of the artist, Marseille, le port serves as an exultant culmination of Signac’s lifelong exploration into colour and composition.
Signac had first visited Marseille in 1898 and continued to return to the town – considered the gateway to the Mediterranean – on numerous occasions, depicting the ancient harbour there from various viewpoints and angles. For the rest of his life, Signac remained completely enamoured with the Midi and the Côte d’Azur, travelling between Paris, where the artist was heavily involved with the contemporary art world, and the ports along the coast where he found endless pictorial inspiration. In 1929, Gaston Lévy, a French businessman and friend of Signac, commissioned the artist to paint a series of watercolours devoted to the ports of France. For the next three years, Signac travelled all over the country creating an extensive series of harbour scenes, seascapes and studies of boats. After this commission was completed in 1932, Signac continued to travel around France. In 1934, the year that Marseille, le port was painted, Signac had spent time in Paris and on the north coast of France before venturing south in September, visiting Marseille for the last time and most likely painting the present work. The scene and location served as a starting point for Signac, providing a composition that he could depict with pure and radiant harmonies of colour. In the present work, the combination of the water, the large boat with its decorative rigging, plumes of smoke and people, all set beneath an expansive sky, provide the structure for an explosive and fantastical array of chromatic harmonies.
With individual daubs of paint, in Marseille, le port, Signac has covered the surface of the canvas with a range of complementary and contrasting tones: the flaming orange, pink and coral tones of the walls of the ancient harbour contrast with the softly shimmering mirage of pastel shades in the sky above, and the jewel-like emerald green, yellow and cobalt blue tones of the boat and water below. The application of individual shades of pure colour exemplifies Signac’s late neo-impressionist technique. Along with Georges Seurat, in the mid-1880s Signac had pioneered pointillism, a revolutionary style in which the artists applied colour to the canvas with a rigorously implemented methodology. Inspired by the colour theory of scientists, such as Michel Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, Signac and Seurat started to fracture the colour in their painting into a myriad of minute and regimented dabs of paint, which combined complementary colours in order to achieve a more vivid rendering of the vibrant and rich effects of light.
A decade later, after the death of Seurat in 1891, Signac’s technique began to loosen. Adopting a less dogmatic and restrictive approach, Signac used thicker and more angled brushstrokes, imbuing his painting with a greater sense of directness and luminosity. This varied touch resulted in mosaic-like compositions, such as Marseille, le port, which dazzle with a unique chromatic intensity, as each colour is matched with its complementary or contrasting pair. As John Leighton has written, ‘If [Signac’s] earlier Neo-Impressionism was an art of renunciation and restraint, his mature style is rich, luxuriant, and sensual… The finest of these later canvases are impressive performances, with a few simple elements orchestrated into extraordinary optical effects. Freed from the burden of description, colour takes on its own exuberant life’ (J. Leighton, in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 19). For Signac, who was an instinctive colourist, the purity of colour and the attainment of a compositional harmony became his primary artistic concerns, in place of the methodical, scientific technique that he had practiced in the past.
While colour abounds, the composition of Marseille, le port is carefully structured. The harbour walls frame the scene, directing the viewer’s eye towards the large boat that glides through the calm waters. This balanced, classical composition illustrates Signac’s keen awareness of landscape tradition; he particularly admired the grand maritime scenes of the seventeenth century master, Claude Lorrain, as well as J.M.W. Turner, whose timeless paintings of ports captured the spectacular effects of light which Signac sought to emulate in his own work. Though he often looked to the past for inspiration, Signac was undoubtedly one of the most innovative artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Remaining staunchly dedicated to Neo-Impressionism, Signac was, at the time of his death in 1935, still considered a prominent and influential figure in the art world. His unwavering love of colour, as encapsulated by Marseille, le port, influenced a number of successive twentieth century artists, from Matisse and Bonnard to Kandinsky and Kupka.