Signac painted the present canvas in 1916, two years after the declaration of the First World War. A pacifist and humanitarian, Signac had been shocked by the rapid escalation of events that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914, and he remained deeply distraught throughout the hostilities, which represented the collapse of everything that he held dear. In a letter to his wife Berthe from the fall of 1914, he wrote, "I really think that I shall never 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). In 1917, he refused to resume the annual exhibitions of the Salon des Indépendants while some of its members were "fighting, suffering, perhaps dying," and he postponed plans for another exhibition because he thought it too painful to go to Paris while "we are undergoing these horrors" (both quoted in ibid., p. 315). The year before the war began, he had left his beloved villa at Saint-Tropez to Berthe and had taken up lodgings at Antibes with his companion Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, who was expecting their child (fig. 1). Too old to be called for service, he remained at Antibes throughout the war, occupying himself by studying Stendhal and corresponding with younger artists on the front; he painted just seventeen canvases during the four years of the conflict, all of them depicting Antibes or the neighboring sites of Saint-Tropez and Cannes. Only one of these paintings alludes to the war itself: Le nuage rose, 1916, in which a squadron of torpedo boats skirts the horizon, while a solitary fishing boat--perhaps emblematic of the artist himself--sails by in the foreground, and a huge, ominous cloud towers like a massive explosion in the distance (Cachin, no. 509; fig. 2). The remaining wartime landscapes, including the present example, are tranquil, idyllic scenes that give no hint that they were painted during a time of profound turmoil. These pictures must have been a balm for Signac's troubled spirit, projecting his hope that the age-old Mediterranean culture, so profoundly harmonized with nature and the sea, will outlast the mechanized carnage and barbarism of war.
Antibes, the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, is located on the Côte d'Azur, midway between Nice and Cannes; Signac had painted there on several occasions during his years at Saint-Tropez, most notably in 1903, 1909, and 1911. To paint the present view, he set up his easel on the quiet, remote beaches to the south-east of Antibes, looking back across the bay toward the town. The historic center is visible at the far left, dominated by the towers of the cathedral and the Château Grimaldi (see also fig. 3); the latter is where Picasso worked during the fall of 1946, and it now houses the Musée Picasso in Antibes. At the far right is the sixteenth-century Fort Carré, located on the outskirts of Antibes, and in the distance are the craggy peaks of the Alpes Maritimes. This architectural and topographical vista, however, merely acts as a backdrop for the principal drama of the painting: the two large schooners that glide across the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, silhouetted against the vast, cloud-flecked sky. The scene is painted in the incandescent colors of late afternoon on the Midi. Rich, yellow-orange light enters the picture from the left, dancing across the towers of the fortified city and the sails of the schooners and then streaking across the sky just above the horizon. The sails on the right are plunged into lustrous blue-green shadow, while the clouds and mountains are tinged with the first rosy hues of sunset. An ardent and accomplished yachtsman, Signac lavished particular care on the depiction of the bay, with its play of reflections rendered as a mosaic of magenta, lilac, azure, and gold. As the Neo-Impressionist painter Henri Cross wrote to Théo Van Rysselberghe, "I always experience a very painterly emotion in front of Signac's canvases; I like to look at them close up as much as from far away. There's a play of hues in them as ravishing as happy combinations of gems, and it is his alone" (quoted in ibid., p. 20).
The present work shows Signac in the middle phase of his career, employing a freer and more purposely expressive, but no less subtle version of Neo-Impressionism than he had in his early years. From 1886 until 1891, Signac had been a driving force behind this artistic vision, conceived by Seurat as a scientific, rational, and technical corrective to the Impressionists' instinctive and spontaneous treatment of nature. Rejecting the irregular brushwork of the Impressionists, Seurat and Signac advocated a more calculated and systematic application of pigment, governed by the principles of color theory. In 1892, the year after Seurat's death, Signac had moved from Paris to Saint-Tropez and adopted a less restrictive and dogmatic approach to Neo-Impressionism (or Divisionism, as he preferred to call it), freeing the way for his personal maturation as a colorist. He abandoned the theories of Charles Henry, whom he did not even cite in his 1899 treatise D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, and he began to apply color in the broad, tessera-like strokes of the present canvas in place of Seurat's tiny dots. John Leighton has written, "If his 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, color takes on its own exuberant life" (ibid., p. 19).
Signac was not the first artist to draw inspiration from the landscape of Antibes. In 1888, Monet had spent three months painting at the same site, which he described in a letter to his companion Alice Hoschedé as "a small fortified town, baked to a golden crust in the sun, standing forth from beautiful blue and pink mountains, and the eternally snow-capped chain of the Alps" (quoted in Monet and the Mediterranean, exh. cat., Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, 1997, p. 39). He brought back a sequence of nearly forty landscapes from this trip, ten of which were exhibited in the summer of 1888 at Boussod & Valadon in Paris; the following year, Monet included seventeen canvases from Antibes in a major retrospective with Rodin at the Galerie Georges Petit. Signac would certainly have visited both of these exhibitions and may well have had Monet's memorable series in mind when he himself painted at Antibes. Signac later recalled that he had decided to become a painter after seeing Monet's first one-man show in 1880, and Monet's vision left an indelible imprint on his art. In 1912, he wrote to the aging Impressionist, "A Monet has always moved me. I have always drawn a lesson from it, and in days of discouragement and doubt a Monet for me was always a friend and a guide" (quoted in op. cit., exh. cat., 2001, p. 71); and in a condolence letter to Blanche Hoschedé in 1926, Signac proclaimed, "I loved and venerated him like a father" (quoted in ibid., p. 70). Eight of Monet's views of Antibes were painted from roughly the same vantage point as the present canvas, looking north-west toward the fortified town (Wildenstein, nos. 1167-1174; fig. 4).
One of the painting's early owners Henri Canonne, a Parisian pharmaceutical tycoon who assembled an important collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces during the first half of the 1920s. The backbone of Canonne's collection was a group of over forty paintings by Monet, including seventeen of the late Nymphéas; he also owned no fewer than eight canvases by Signac, as well as paintings by Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Cézanne, Bonnard, Vuillard, and Matisse. The art critic Arsène Alexandre was so impressed by the quality of the Canonne collection that he devoted a book to it in 1930; his judgment has been borne out by the continued fame of Canonne's paintings, many of which are now housed in prominent museums around the world.
(fig. 1) Signac and Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange at Antibes, 1913.
(fig. 2) Paul Signac, Le nuage rose (Antibes), 1916. Isabelle and Scott Black collection.
(fig. 3) Paul Signac, Port d'Antibes, 1917. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2010, lot 57.
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Antibes, vue du plateau Notre-Dame, 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.