'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' (Letter from Henri Edmond Cross to Théo van Rysselberghe, 1905 quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon et. al., Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 20).
From the soaring minarets, which echo the ships' masts in punctuating the skyline, to the lines of the boats in the foreground repeated in the curvature of the rippling waters, La Corne d'or. Les Minarets is a masterful composition rich in pictorial rhythm. Paul Signac executed this chromatically dazzling, opalescent work in 1907 and it belongs to an important series of twelve paintings depicting Constantinople (present day Istanbul). Ten of these paintings were executed in 1907 and a further two in 1909, all of them views of the perspective looking out over the Golden Horn, which is the estuary and busy harbour of the Bosphorus that has historically divided the city between East and West. Rendered with his signature Neo-Impressionist brushwork, in La Corne d'or. Les Minarets Signac presents us with a deeply romantic vista of the city's domed mosques and minarets rising behind a port scene of bustling activity. The exceptional quality of the present painting is reflected in its distinguished provenance - purchased by the Baron Eberhard von Bodenhausen in February 1908, the family of the present owners subsequently acquired it in the 1920s.
Signac's views of Constantinople form a part of a larger project that was devoted to great port cities and follows on from his earlier portrayals of Venice, Marseille and Rotterdam. Taking his cue from a similar port-based series by the eighteenth-century maritime painter Claude-Joseph Vernet, Signac began to work on an ever-larger scale, creating compositions such as La Corne d'or. Les Minarets that are carefully planned and orchestrated and then lavishly painted. A number of these works-including the present painting-evince a markedly classical approach to composition, suggesting that Signac may well have been consciously casting himself as heir to the great tradition of maritime painting that stretched back to J.M.W. Turner and Claude Lorrain before him (see Ferretti-Bocquillon et. al., op. cit., p. 225).
Signac arrived in Constantinople in the spring of 1907. Although a keen yachtsman, he apparently travelled there by way of train, accompanied by his fellow artist--and yachting enthusiast--Henri Person. Clearly enraptured by the spectacle which unfolded before him in this exotic city, Signac wrote of '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). This gives us some indication of how his vision of the city was filtered through the prism of his memories of Turner's landscapes and La Corne d'or. Les Minarets displays distinct parallels in terms of its composition and hazy atmospheric light with the English Romantic artist's Venetian scenes. Indeed, the artist Maurice Denis referred to Signac's work from this period as exemplifying a form of 'reasoned romanticism' that was in contradistinction to his earlier, more rigorous style of Neo-Impressionism (M. Denis, quoted in J. Leighton, 'Out of Seurat's Shadow: Signac, 1863-1935, An Introduction', in Ferretti-Bocquillon et. al., op. cit., p. 19).
Georges Seurat's 'scientific' Pointillist technique had exerted a great influence upon Signac. However, following Seurat's death in 1891, Signac's style then shifted away from a meticulous Pointillism to one more concerned with achieving chromatic brilliance and a sense of overall harmony. The small dots of pigment previously placed side-by-side now gave way to thicker, stronger strokes of lustrous paint. La Corne d'or. Les Minarets is a superbly accomplished example of this more mature style developed by Signac, the paint methodically applied with vertical and horizontal tesserae-like blocks that reverberate across the composition's surface. This was a style that many commentators at the time likened to mosaics, which was a particularly appropriate analogy for his scenes of Constantinople. This comparison is decidedly apt in the case of the present painting, where its predominant palette of cool blues, greens and purples is offset by gem-like pinks and yellows. Guillaume Apollinaire later remarked that Signac's technique 'could be linked to the art of the Byzantine mosaicists' (Apollinaire, quoted in Signac, exh. cat., Paris, 1963, p. 74). In his influential treatise on Neo-Impressionism published in 1899, moreover, Signac had expressly linked Divisionism with Oriental art, claiming for Neo-Impressionist canvases the stature of monumental decorative schemes:
'These canvases, which restore the light to the walls of our modern apartments, which enshrine pure colours in rhythmic lines, which share the charm of Oriental rugs, mosaics and tapestries, are not these decorations also?' (Signac, D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme, new edn., Paris, 1911, p. 88).
La Corne d'or. Les Minarets and the other paintings constituting his great cycle devoted to Constantinople can thus be seen as the pictorial fulfillment of the principles espoused by him a number of years earlier.
When Signac visited Constantinople, the Golden Horn was both a commercial and military port and, apparently unable to explore at will, he made sketches under the watchful presence of a police guard. He subsequently used these notational observations, captured in front of the motif, in preparation for his oil paintings - a sketch in Indian ink and wash for La Corne d'or. Les Minarets is housed in a private collection. This practice was consonant with the one adopted by the artist in the 1890s and it is notable that in the very year he painted La Corne d'or. Les Minarets, Denis observed that
'M. Signac is in full maturity and each year attempts a recapitulation in a major picture. He does not enlarge a sketch but composes a work of the imagination from his studies, compensating for the strictness of his theories with rich romanticism' (Denis, quoted in Ferretti-Bocquillon et. al, op. cit., p. 225).
The famous modernist architect-and painter-Le Corbusier was captivated by the 'rich romanticism' of Signac's work also. When viewing one of Signac's paintings of Constantinople in 1911 he was prompted to exclaim, 'Constantinople! I shall probably not see this city in a more enchanting light than this one magic painting by Signac at the Munich exhibition' (Le Corbusier, quoted in Le Corbusier Before Le Corbusier: Applied Arts, Architecture, Painting, and Photography, 1907-1922, exh. cat., New Haven, 2002, p. 33). Indeed, when Le Corbusier finally saw Constantinople in the flesh, he was disappointed to discover that it was not the shimmering, luminous city of Signac's painting. As Stanisloos von Moos has suggested, the painting Le Corbusier had seen was quite probably the present work, which had been purchased by the German collector the Baron Eberhard von Bodenhausen in February 1908 (ibid., p. 284, fn. 33). (It should be noted that while the Signac catalogue raisonné does not list this exhibition in the painting's history, there is no reference to it with regard to any of Signac's other paintings of Constantinople either).
Von Bodenhausen was an eminent art historian, lawyer and industrialist who had been introduced to Signac's works through his friendship with the Belgian painter and architect Henry van de Velde. Von Bodenhausen established an outstanding collection of twelve paintings by Signac, two of which were his views of Constantinople. He was also co-founder and chairman of Pan, the company which published the literary magazine of the same name. It was in Pan magazine that large excerpts of Signac's D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme first appeared in Germany and Von Bodenhausen was subsequently to publish the first German edition of this text in 1903. Upon hearing of von Bodenhausen's death, Signac wrote that 'he had been kind to me', which indicates the importance of both his patronage and the role he had played in disseminating Signac's writings (Signac, quoted in F. Cachin, Signac: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Paris, 2000, p. 386). La Corne d'or. Les Minarets is a stunningly luminescent work from an important series and its particularly strong and distinguished provenance is a testament to this work's exceptional quality.