'I am anxious to have your opinion on the [size] 50 [canvas] of the Golden Horn. I have tried to make it more colourful, in oriental scales, of silks or scimitar handles (without literary pretension). Cross liked it, but do you?' (Signac, letter to Félix Fénéon, 8 February 1908, quoted in F. Cachin, op. cit., p. 287).
Painted towards the end of 1907, La Corne d'Or, Constantinople is the largest and one of the most impressive of Paul Signac's views of Istanbul, as the Turkish city is now known. The catalogue raisonné of Signac's works lists only eleven views of the city, nine dating from 1907 and two from two years later. Several of the pictures that Signac painted of the city shared perspectives looking out over the Golden Horn, the inlet that historically separated Constantinople and kept much of its ancient area strategically safe on its peninsula on the Bosphorus. Here, Signac's fascination with the view is clear, as he catches the frenetic movement of the boats on the water, with the domes of the New Mosque and other places of worship receding into a skyline that is punctuated by the bold, vertical streaks of the minarets, the Beyazit Tower and some of the masts of the vessels. Contrasting with the undulating silhouettes of the domes, those vertical elements add a sense of rhythmic progression to this skyline, which takes on the character of a sheet of musical notations, recalling Signac's own fascination with music in his earlier Opus works. The quality and importance of La Corne d'Or, Constantinople are clear from its impressive exhibition history and also its provenance: it passed through the hands of distinguished dealers such as Bernheim-Jeune and Paul Vallotton, the brother of the artist Félix, before entering a collection from which it was offered at auction in 1937, two years after Signac's death. At that sale, it was acquired by the artist's daughter Ginette and her husband Charles Cachin, a doctor and the son of the founder of the French Communist Party; it subsequently remained in the family's hands for over half a century.
In this picture, the monumental edifices of ancient Constantinople have served as the witnesses of history against the more ephemeral life of the speeding vessels in the foreground, providing a contrast between the stretch of the centuries and the movements of human life and sensation that often underpins Signac's paintings of harbours. In La Corne d'Or, Constantinople, Signac himself becomes a part of the continuing history of the Turkish city as a cosmopolitan melting pot, a point where East and West have often met, sometimes clashed, and which has resulted in its rich, unique and heady ambience. Appropriately, the brushstrokes with which Signac conjures this vision recall the mosaics of Byzantium and the tiles of Islamic art - his Neo-Impressionism was a modern complement to those ancient art forms. La Corne d'Or, Constantinople perfectly captures the profound accretion of culture that has slowly emerged in Istanbul over the centuries, lending it its magical character, while vividly revealing it as a place of industry, activity and life.
Signac had travelled to Constantinople, present day Istanbul, earlier in 1907 in the company of his friend and fellow artist, Henri Person, travelling from 28 March to 15 May that year, leaving his wife Berthe at home as her mother was ill. Like Signac, Person was a keen yachtsman and the two artists had struck up a strong friendship after the latter's move to Saint-Tropez. Person would come to love his new home so much that he became instrumental in assembling the Musée Tropelen there. That museum was later incorporated into the Musée de l'Annonciade; its collection includes many of his own works as well as those of Signac, some of which Person had acquired in his capacity as its curator. It was on Person's own yacht, the Henriette, that Signac had undertaken a tour of the Mediterranean the previous year; the year after La Corne d'Or, Constantinople was painted, he also sailed in Person's Henriette II. However, for their journey to Constantinople it appears that they made the journey by train (see M.T. Lemoyne de Forges, Signac, exh. cat., Paris, 1963, pp. 80-81). Signac was enraptured by the spectacle that Istanbul had to offer, exclaiming, 'I have seen admirable and new things and men, which is rare!' (Signac, quoted in ibid., p. 80). Going into more depth, he expounded, 'There is the shrouded light of the North against colour of the Orient. One thinks of London, of Rotterdam - and of Venice a bit. Above all, it is Turnerian' (Signac, quoted in F. Cachin & M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, P. Signac, exh. cat., Martigny, 2003, p. 122). It is this quality that Signac has distilled into La Corne d'Or, Constantinople, with its pale, hazy light and its rich colours. Indeed, the mosques in this picture directly recall J.M.W. Turner's evocative pictures of Venice, amplifying their Oriental exoticism.
Signac's enthusiasm for Istanbul appears to have been hampered in a couple of ways which he later overcame on his return to his studio in France, where he painted the present work. For, while there, the weather was often poor, limiting his chances of capturing dawn or dusk; also, as the Golden Horn remained a military as well as a commercial port, his observations in his sketchbooks were made under police guard and that he was unable to roam around seeking his own perspectives of choice (see ibid., p. 122). Despite this, the material he brought home would result in a group of paintings, several of which he swiftly put into exhibitions, where they met with enthusiastic responses from critics and collectors alike.
Signac's Neo-Impressionist work is often divided into two key periods: those works that were executed during the lifetime of his friend, the artistic trailblazer Georges Seurat, which were characterised by an incredibly rigorous Pointillism that itself was underpinned by complex colour theories; and the later pictures, in which a love of paint and a desire to convey something more expressive than the intensity of sight alone came into play. In essence, technique gave way to aesthetic. Looking at La Corne d'Or, Constantinople, it is clear that Signac has revelled in capturing this scene, lavishly applying tessera-like brushstrokes of various colours to fill the work with an incredible vibrancy. Signac's paint surface has a vitality that belies the incredible, painstaking efforts that resulted in such pictures: the catalogue raisonné of his paintings lists under twenty from the course of 1907, of which only one other, a view of Rotterdam now in the Boijmans-van Beuningen Museum in that city, was on so large a scale as La Corne d'Or, Constantinople. This was a direct result of the time-consuming process of applying brushstroke after brushstroke on such a scale, working with dedication in the studio from sketches made in situ earlier in the year.
Signac's meticulousness and perfectionism become clear from a letter he wrote to his friend, the critic Félix Fénéon, explaining that he had essentially begun the entire picture again having seen it afresh:
'One learns through travelling: in returning I "saw" my Constantinople 50 at which I had exhausted myself and I decided to begin again on a blank canvas. It's the first time that such an experience has happened to me. But as I used zinc white which does not dry because of the yellows, I could not scratch or retouch it without messing it up. One month of work wasted... no, as perhaps the second version [the present painting] will be better than the first' (Signac, letter to Félix Fénéon, 28 December 1907, quoted in F. Cachin, op. cit., p. 287).
It was about this picture that he subsequently asked for Fénéon's opinion, saying that his fellow Neo-Impressionist Henri Edmond Cross had admired it. Signac's comments about a month's wasted work are indicative of the intensity and rigour of his working process. The vitality of the paint surface, which glows and scintillates, lends this picture an expressive energy which relates to the unbridled palettes and styles of the Fauves who had come to the fore during the previous couple of years, yet rather than paint in a frenzy, Signac has gradually built up this shimmering vision.
Signac would become a great advocate for the new generation of the avant garde which in turn had taken inspiration from the Neo-Impressionist movement he had spearheaded alongside Seurat. The year after he painted this picture, he would be appointed the president of the Société des artistes indépendants, a position he would hold for a long time and in which he would wield a great deal of influence - at the first exhibition of the Indépendants after his nomination, he would exhibit one of the smaller views of the Golden Horn. Signac's open-minded approach to the new generation of artists was particularly evident in his relations with Henri Matisse during this period. Only a few years earlier, Signac had met Matisse and invited him to his home in Saint-Tropez; later in the year, while staying with Signac, Matisse appears to have conceived one of his early masterpieces, Luxe, calme et volupté. Matisse exhibited the picture the next day, and Signac acquired it, hanging it in the dining room of his home opposite one of Cross' pictures; it is now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris (see M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, 'Signac as a Collector', pp. 51-66, Ferretti-Bocquillon et al., eds., Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, pp. 62-63). Signac's enthusiasm for Matisse's more explicitly Fauve works, rather than the vigorous Pointillism of Luxe, calme et volupté, would wane over the following years, yet he and his own highly-colourful works remained a crucial rallying point for that generation.
The influence of Signac's pictures of Istanbul has lasted even longer: in The Hudson Review in 1982-83, the legendary Canadian railwayman, logger, inventor and poet Robert Swanson published a vivid work entitled Looking at a Painting of Constantinople by Paul Signac, in which he first described the feel of a picture from this series before being plunged back into his memories of the city. His lines clearly evoke this picture:
The minarets spire vaguely through a mosaic
of small shells of paint: like oyster-shells.
mussels, abalone. But these odd, green waters
have no odor, no dark movement under the surface.
When we step back from the canvas, the shells
blur, fade, become a sea-mist, through which we
see the unreal city. Boats without oarsmen,
yachts without tillers, mosques without muezzins.
Any sound we could hear over these waters would
seem like a sigh. This sea is not a sea, with
foam and wave, but a gauzy veil taking on the
light of green yachts, the reflection of white
minarets, grey domes, beige walls. And the city?
is not a haven we reach after a pleasant voyage;
but a mirage we gaze at, starving, thirsting.
(R. Swanson, 'Looking at a Painting of Constantinople by Paul Signac', reproduced in The Hudson Review, vol. 35, no. 4, Winter 1982-83, pp. 578-79).