Paul Signac had two great passions: painting, and boats. Whenever possible, Signac enthusiastically combined these two passions, relishing every chance that he had to paint the great ports and maritime cities of Europe, to which he would often sale in his own boat. Painted in 1909, Constantinople (Corne d'Or), shows ships both under sail and at anchor, a busy scene of commerce at the meeting place of the European and Asian continents. In 1907, Signac travelled from Venice to Constantinople by train in the company of the painter Henry Person. Signac was enthusiastic about both the country and the 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, p. 80). He was also dazzled by the 'shrouded northen light against a background of Oriental colour. One thinks somewhat of London, Rotterdam, or Venice. Above all, it is Turnerian' (quoted in F. Cachin, Paul Signac, Milan, 1971, p. 95).
Constantinople (Corne d'Or) shows the artist capturing the light effects of the great city through his Neo-Impressionist means. In the foreground is the busy shipping lane of the Corne d'Or (The Golden Horn), the historic stretch of water which divides the city and the European and Asian continents. Signac's view of the city is taken from the Asian side, or European quarter, looking across the water to the port, the skyline is dominated by the great mosques of Aya Sofya, Sultanahmed, and Suleymaniye. The painterly surface of Constantinople (Corne d'Or) reveals the free handling of the artist, who had a love of oils that surpassed his love of Pointillism. As a self-taught painter, Signac revelled in being an instinctual painter, and this resulted in an increasing exuberance in his works, expecially after the death of his friend and mentor, the more rigidly scientific Seurat.
In Constantinople (Corne d'Or) we see the truth of his assertion that aesthetics, rather than science, were important to him: 'The division is a complex system of harmony, an aesthetic rather than a technique. The point is but a means' (Signac, D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, ed. F. Cachin, Paris 1978, p. 119). In Constantinople (Corne d'Or) the artist 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: this area is intense with action, with boats, while the light effects of the sky and the sun beaming down onto the mosques pose intriguing challenges for the artist, one for which he is more than a match.
As one of the leading members of the Neo-Impressionists, Signac influenced the next generation of artists. He influenced Henri Matisse and André Derain in particular, thus playing a decisive role in the evolution of Fauvism. The year before the present work was painted, in 1908, Signac was appointed president of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, and was therefore in an influential position to promote the controversial works of the Fauves and Cubists, but continued to send his works abroad to be viewed by a international audience. At the close of 1909, when the present work was painted, Signac exhibited three pieces at the International Exhibition, better known as Ier Salon d'Odessa, organised by Vladimir Izdebski, who after the revolution in 1917, organised the Salon de Paris in Moscow. The three works, which were Fanal de Traghetto (Cachin no. 416), Diablerets and Port de Saint-Tropez pavoisé (not listed in Cachin), were shown in Kiev, St. Petersburg and Riga.
Since its purchase from the celebrated Paris gallery, Bernheim-Jeune, in the early 20th Century, Constantinople (Corne d'Or) has only been offered at auction twice before now, in 1927 and 1961. The work appears to have been purchased shortly after it was painted in 1909, by Dr Marcel Norero, who bought paintings by Signac from Galerie Druet and, as is most likely with the present work, from Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. In addition to this canvas, Françoise Cachin lists in her catalogue raisonné, three other paintings by Signac owned by Dr Marcel Norero: Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin (207), Le port (soir). Couchant rouge (St Tropez) (446) and La Bonne Mère. Marseille (462); works dating from 1890 to 1909. The first and last of these, as well as Constantinople (Corne d'Or), were included in the vente Norero held at Hôtel Drouot on 14 February 1927. When looking at the artists represented in Dr Norero's sale; Bonnard, Cross, Braque, Derain, it is apparent that like Signac, Dr Norero was also a supporter of the Paris avant-garde.