Paul Signac's parents lived in Asnières, northwest of Paris, and he depicted that area, including the Seine, numerous times. However, Signac's mother moved to Paris in 1889, and so Signac worked at Asnières for the last time in 1888, painting Arrière du Tub. "The Tub" was the name of the small sailboat in the painting; it eventually sank in 1890 at Herblay. Signac was an avid yachtsman, and this is the vantage point of Arrière du Tub. The stern is depicted at the foreground of the painting, and the painter--and the viewer--look out of the boat onto the landscape. This scene, however, is not the timeless paradise of Corot or even Delacroix, but rather illustrates the rapid encroachment of industry. The bridge of Asnières is at the center of the canvas, and a train crosses it at the far right, moving into the image and evoking both the sights and the sounds of modern life. A similar painting, Avant du Tub, 1888 (private collection), depicts the view as seen from the bow, which was the quiet, leisurely side of Asnières. As Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon noted, "These paintings anticipate an important change in [Signac's] work. Little by little, evocations of leisure activities and the pleasures of sailing would replace the industrial landscapes, with their bridges and metal cranes, which are still visible here. In these new landscapes Signac resisted the temptations of Naturalism and moved closer to Monet and the Impressionist tradition in his choice of subject" (in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, cat. 28). While Signac's images of Asnières reflect common ambiguous feelings towards modern life, keeping nature, leisure, and industry in a delicate balance, they also are important in their use of a new technique: divisionism.
In 1884, Signac was a founding member of the Salon des Indépendants, where he met Georges Seurat. Seurat was exhibiting Baignade à Asnières (De Hauke no. 92, London, National Gallery), completed earlier that year, in which he had already begun to apply principles of divisionism. The younger, untutored Signac was attracted by the rigor of this technique and began to adopt its distinctive brushstroke and carefully delineated, architectonic structure. However, the influence was not one-sided--Signac urged Seurat to abandon his lingering earth tones in favor of luminous, pure pigments. Signac also suggested that his own, less disciplined work may have had a liberating effect on his more analytically orientated and doctrinaire friend.
Seurat exhibited his masterpiece La Grande Jatte in 1886, at the eighth and final Impressionist show and then at the Indépendants, effectively launching a new group, albeit a loosely formed one. Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Edmund Cross, Charles Angrand, and many others began to apply divisionist methods, yet it was the enthusiastic and outgoing Signac who held the group together and generated a sense of shared identity. 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. Signac's Portrait de Félix Fénéon, 1890 (Cachin no. 211, New York, Museum of Modern Art) seems to be a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of Henry's theories regarding the emotional effect of color and linear direction; for example, Henry believed that upward-moving lines produce joy in a viewer whereas downward-moving lines produce sadness. In contrast to the swirling arabesques of Portrait de Félix Fénéon, the dominant lines of Arrière du Tub are primarily horizontal, with the bridge dividing the expanses of sea and sky; this transverse sectioning appears to provide a strict sense of equilibrium and order, perhaps appropriate for a leisurely sail on the Seine. However, the dramatic perspective of the stern itself, as well as the diagonal of the shoreline, actively coerce the viewer to enter the picture, as if he were present at the scene.
Indeed, although Seurat is considered the founder of divisionism, it is clear that Signac made its principles known, particularly after Seurat's premature death in 1891. Most importantly, Signac published his book D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme in 1899, although several chapters had been published serially in the journal La Revue Blanche the year before. Not fully satisfied with the explanations of other critics and theorists (including Fénéon), he had begun writing the treatise, at a slow pace, in 1896. As its title indicates, the book espouses Neo-Impressionism and the divisionist technique by placing it within a historical context. For Signac, color and light are paramount, and thus his historical line naturally includes Delacroix, Turner, and Monet.
Impressionism looms very large in D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, and the only major Impressionist artists missing from his pantheon are Gustave Caillebotte and Edgar Degas, both of whom were concerned more with drawing than with color. Signac's own early work was Impressionist, and it was Monet's work, with its emphasis on color and luminosity, that inspired Signac to take up painting. He wrote to Monet in 1883, "Frankly, this is my position: I have been painting for two years, and my only models have been your own works" (quoted in Susan Alyson Stein, "An Artist among Artists: Signac Beyond the Neo-Impressionist Circle" in Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, p. 69). He asked to meet Monet and show the older artist his work, and the two men met in Paris in 1884. In addition, in 1888, the year that Arrière du Tub was painted, Signac was still working from nature, although he would stop doing so around 1894. Françoise Cachin, the author of Signac's catalogue raisonné, writes of the earlier period: "He came to realize that the best part of his sensibility and of the pointillist technique were activated for him by scenes of sunshine and sea, by everything that sparkled, teemed and splashed in the bright light" (op. cit., p. 38). Arrière du Tub certainly retains this sparkling quality, particularly seen in the wavering reflection of the bridge in the water, making it an example of the height of Signac's divisionist work.
While Monet painted the Seine at Asnières, he more often, and more famously, depicted the river and the bridge at Argentueil, a town that is slightly further from Paris although still to the northwest. T.J. Clark writes of Monet's Argentueil paintings and the artist's equivocal response to industry and leisure: "There was an industry of pleasure taking its place in the landscape, making the river available to people who wished to go as far as Bezons, take a closer look at the false Louis XIII villa--the one with the mansard roof--and be back in time for the train. This industry could certainly be made part of landscape painting; Monet is often at his strongest when he spells out the encroachment of pleasure on the countryside, but insists, in the way he handles it, that the scene has lost none of its unity and charm" (The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, New York, 1985, p. 186). For example, in Le Pont du chemin de fer, Argenteuil, 1873, Monet depicted the sailboats sailing under the bridge; the whiteness of the bridge and the sailboats contrast sharply with the blackness of the train crossing above. Two men stand on shore, but it is not clear if they are looking at the peaceful sailboats or the puffing train (fig. 1).
It is clear that Monet provided a precedent for Signac's treatment of a similar subject, and that Signac greatly admired Impressionism's emphasis on pure color and visible, tactile brushstroke. Nevertheless, he noted that the practitioners of the Impressionist approach lacked a rigorous method, which resulted in less than optimally lively and brilliant colors. He wrote in D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, "By mixing the pure elements at their disposal, they reconstituted the dull, somber hues, precisely those they apparently wished to abandon. Not only did they tone down their pure colors by mixing them on the palette, but they also diminished their intensity still further by allowing chance brushstrokes to bring opposite elements together on the canvas" (translated in F. Radcliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, New York, 1992, p. 243). Signac built up his images with several layers of color, progressively adding smaller strokes, distinguishing his work from Impressionism and from other divisionists. As John Leighton has explained, "As the picture progressed, the intermediate layers seem to have been scraped down as part of an effect to retain a smooth, even surface that is so distinct from the rasping textures and happy accidents of Impressionsim" (quoted in "Out of Seurat's Shadow," Signac 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, p. 9).
It is important to note that not only did D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme address divisionism's historical position, but it was also immensely influential on contemporary artists, helping to renew interest in the technique between 1900 and 1910. It was widely read by artists in France, especially the Fauves, who found in it support for freedom of color. The tract was also influential in Germany, where it was translated in 1903, and in Italy, where its appearance induced the Futurists to take up the technique.
Matisse, for instance, read the treatise eagerly when it was published in La Revue blanche and worked with Signac at Saint Tropez in 1904. Signac greatly admired the younger artists's Luxe, Calme, et volupté, 1904 (Paris, Musée d'Orsay) and purchased it in 1905. Signac was very aware and proud of the effect of divisionism on the new generation, and he was, therefore, disappointed in Matisse's Joie de vivre, 1905-06 (Dauberville no. 69, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA), shown at the Salon des Indépendants of 1906. At this Salon, as Matisse stated, "Fauvism overthrew the tyranny of Divisionism" (quoted in S. A. Stein, op. cit., p. 78). Louis Vauxelles also noted this change, writing of Joie de vivre, "Today [Matisse] seems to heed not the suggestion of M. Paul Signac, but the perilous constraint of M. Derain. He has abandoned the dot and ended up with coloration through flat planes" (ibid., p. 79). Indeed, Joie de vivre does seem to eschew the divided brushstroke of Signac, using much broader areas of color and sweeping, connected lines and arabesques.
Another Fauve, André Derain, was also clearly affected by the revival of divisionism, although he preferred views of urban activity and commerce rather than the ambiguous suburban areas. For instance, in Le Pont de Charing-Cross, Londres of 1906 (fig. 2), Derain depicted the view from the wharves in a busy shipping area on the Thames. The dark, solid bridge dominates the middle of the canvas, and a train, trailing smoke, is heading across the bridge into the station. Clearly, Derain must have been aware of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist lineage of this theme and composition. On the far left of the scene is the landmark Lion's Brewery, and the Houses of Parliament are in the distance. The line of the buildings on the shore and the boats are scattered in the left foreground are very similar to the composition of Arrière du Tub. On the right side of the painting, the water is depicted in a divisionist technique, albeit in a type of shorthand, with broader and longer marks. These marks effectively evoke the movement of the water and the glittering reflection of light on its surface. On the left side of the canvas, the brushstroke is smoother, and is more reminiscent of Matisse's joie de vivre.
Moreover, the view of the Asnières bridge itself was painted by van Gogh and Emile Bernard, who were working there together in the summer of 1887, the year before Signac painted Arrière du Tub. Both of the earlier paintings (figs. 3 and 4) depict the river and bridge in compositions similar to Signac's, and clearly combine the natural setting and the looming modern structure of the bridge. Thus Signac was not only referencing Impressionist masters such as Monet--in both his painting and his writing--but was also participating in the contemporary scene, illustrating a rare combination of historical awareness and avant-garde sensibility.
Arrière du Tub, in its composition, color, and brushstroke, depicts Signac at the height of his divisionist powers. Moreover, it forms a clear bridge between the past and the present in its theme and technique, recalling the revolutionary work of the Impressionists while inspiring the Fauves in their continuing quest for freedom of color.
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Le Pont du chemin de fer, Argenteuil, 1873. Private collection. BARCODE 25240382
(fig. 2) André Derain, Le Pont de Charing-Cross, Londres, 1906. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. BARCODE 25240412
(fig. 3) Vincent Van Gogh, Le pont, Asnières, 1887. Zurich, Foundation E.G. Bûrle. BARCODE 25240405
(fig. 4) Emile Bernard, Iron Bridges, Asnières, 1887. New York, Museum of Modern Art. Digital Image Copyright The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY BARCODE 25240399