This painting will be included in the forthcoming supplement catalogue raisonné of Paul Signac being prepared by Françoise Cachin and Marina Ferretti.
The sail of a fishing boat turns bright gold in the pink and yellow light before sunset as its crew slowly heads home, catching the diminishing breezes at the end of day. A second boat has already made landfall; the fishermen have stowed its sail and are unloading their catch. There is no hint in this tranquil, idyllic scene that Signac painted it in the third year of the First World War. A pacifist and a humanitarian, Signac had been shocked at the sudden and uncontrollable escalation of events that led the European powers to draw up sides and declare war in August 1914. He wrote to his wife Berthe: "I really think that I shall never be able to recover from the appalling distress in which I am sinking, despite my efforts" (quoted in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 314).
Signac lamented in a letter to a friend in 1917 that he had been unable to paint for the previous three years. This was not entirely true, but his production had been severely curtailed. Between the outbreak of the war and the armistice of November 1918, Signac painted only seventeen canvases: none in the remainder of 1914, only one in 1915, and then only a handful in each of the next three years of hostilities. He sold some of the few pictures he completed, but only as necessary to sustain himself and his new companion, Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, also a painter, in their household in Antibes. There was not much of an art market during the war. Then in his fifties, Signac was too old to be called up for service, but many of the younger artists whom he had befriended and championed were in harm's way. Keeping them in his thoughts, he closed the doors of the annual Salon des Indépendants for the duration.
The few paintings that Signac completed during the later years of the war must have been a balm for his troubled spirit. They depict familiar sites along the Côte d'Azur in Antibes, Saint-Tropez and Cannes. Only one painting alludes to the war: Le Nuage rose, 1916, shows a squadron of torpedo boats skirting the horizon as a huge, ominous reddish cloud towers like a massive explosion in the distance (Cachin, no. 509).
To paint the present view, Signac situated himself on the promontory bordering Port Bacon and looked north across the bay to Antibes. The towers of the old town and the Château Grimaldi--where Picasso worked during the summer of 1946 and is today the site of the Musée Picasso in Antibes--are visible in the distance. The peaks of the Alpes Maritimes mark the horizon. Signac has framed two sides of the composition with the twisting, dance-like arabesque of an old seaside pine tree. The present composition is one of three canvases that Signac painted in 1917 that treat this view of Antibes, seen in varying opalescent tonalities of late afternoon light. Another of these pictures was sold at Christie's Paris on 21 May 2008, lot 55 (Cachin, no. 515; fig. 1). Both the present painting and the Paris version were acquired from the artist by his customary dealer, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. Signac sold the third picture in 1917 directly to the Finnish collector Herman Frithiof Antell, on behalf of the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki (Cachin, no. 516; please note that the illustrations of 515 and 516 were mistakenly reversed).
The present Port d'Antibes and its two companion pictures show Signac in the middle phase of his career employing a freer, more purposely expressive but no less subtle development of his divisionist technique. In these pictures Signac created the haven of a separate peace, far removed from mechanized carnage which the European powers had so grievously inflicted upon one another, and here he dreams that the age-old Mediterranean culture and way of life, so profoundly harmonized with nature and the sea, will endure and outlast the barbarism of war.
(fig. 1) Paul Signac, Antibes, Petit Port de Bacon, 1917. Sold, Christie's Paris, 2 May 2008, lot 55.
Barcode: 2724 9413