On 9 October 1918 Signac wrote from his home in Antibes to the Parisian art critic and gallerist Félix Fénéon a lengthy letter in appreciation of Cézanne’s painting. He also mentioned that he had been in touch with Fénéon’s friend Chrysis, presumably the stage name of Antoinette Bazin, a dancer. “In exchange for her piggy-bank I will deliver to her a size 20 canvas, the one I’ve begun in the pink, blue and green harmony she requested, showing the lighthouse in Antibes against the backdrop of the snowy Alps, the water in the foreground very green, with some fishing boats alongside the mole. I believe that I sent you, in my last shipment of watercolors, a sheet showing this motif. I sent a sketch to the dancer and await her reply” (trans. from F. Cachin, op. cit., 2000, no. 520, p. 308).
The possibility of a sale–the present painting Le Musoir (Port d’Antibes)—was certainly welcome at this time, while the once lively Paris art market continued to languish during the four-year-long ordeal of the First World War. There was in early October, moreover, exciting news from the Western Front. Having turned back the Germans’ last-ditch offensive and ended all threat to Paris, French, British, and American forces were advancing in all sectors, reclaiming territory that had been lost to the enemy in the opening months of the war. One might dare hope that an end to hostilities, even some kind of victory, was in sight. The final transaction between Signac and his client for Le Musoir (Port d’Antibes) likely occurred around the time the Armistice ending the war was signed on 11 November 1918.
Aged fifty at the outbreak of the war, Signac had been too old for military service. He had been living on the Côte d’Azur since the late 1890s, first in Saint-Tropez, later dividing his time between that port town and Antibes. There he was far from any danger, such as Parisians faced from random air raids and in 1918 the bombardment by huge guns positioned more than seventy miles from the capital. Signac endured instead a crisis of confidence in the fundamental values he had long held dear.
A dedicated pacifist and humanitarian, Signac had been shocked at the sudden and uncontrollable escalation of events that led the European powers to draw up sides and stupidly declare war in August 1914. From his point-of-view as an ardent anarchist, he railed at the absolutist regimes–those of the German Kaiser, The Austrian Emperor, and the Russian Czar–which had foisted the false rationale of war on working-class masses who harbored no animosity toward one another, but having been fed hateful, nationalist jingoism, patriotically sacrificed themselves in many millions on battlefields across Europe. He wrote to his wife Berthe: “I really think that I shall never be able to 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).
Between the outbreak of the war and the Armistice of November 1918, Signac painted only seventeen canvases—none in the remainder of 1914, only one in 1915, and then only a handful in each of the ensuing three years of hostilities. He suffered from time to time from a shortage of paints. “I have sent seven paintings to Bernheim,” he wrote to artist Charles Angrand in January 1917, “three years’ work!” (quoted in ibid., p. 315). He was able to sell, however, as many paintings as were necessary to sustain himself, his new companion Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, their daughter Ginette (born in October 1913), and the households in Saint-Tropez and Antibes.
As a founding member of the Salon des Indépendants in 1884, Signac was instrumental in persuading the organization to suspend its customary annual spring exhibition for the duration of the war. To have gone ahead with these events, he argued, was unfair and disrespectful to the many potential participants, including men half his age and less, some just beginning their careers, who had been called up to serve their country in the armed forces and often found themselves in harm’s way. He often wrote to these young artists at the front to lift their morale.
Precautions taken in the early months of the war for coastal security had prevented Signac from using his sailing yacht Sinbad for trips between Saint-Tropez and Antibes. In 1915 he was made an official war artist, exempting him from such restrictions. Matters of health, however, prevented him from joining an expedition to Salamis and Milos in the Aegean Sea. Naval authorities requisitioned the Sinbad for their use during 1916, but returned it the following year.
Only one painting that Signac completed during the Great War alludes to the conflict, Le Nuage rose, 1916 (Cachin, no. 509) A squadron of torpedo boats skirts the horizon, while a solitary fishing boat—perhaps emblematic of the artist and his anxiety at events of the day—drifts in the foreground. A towering, ominous cloud, as if conjured forth by another in the form of a swirling banshee-like apparition, resembles a massive explosion in the distance, setting the sea aglow with its pinkish, blood-tinted reflection.
Other wartime pictures depict Signac’s favorite haunts on the Côte d’Azur—Antibes, Saint-Tropez and Cannes—before they developed into the popular vacationer’s and tourist destinations they became during the 1920s and 1930s. Greek traders settled the site of the present-day port of Antibes as the town of Antipolis during the 5th century BC. As seen in the present painting, a fishing vessel departs from the inner harbor through a channel bounded by a musoir (“pier”) extending in the foreground from the Quai de Milliardiares, and in the distance, La Jetée, a docking and receiving area to the right of the lighthouse. The snow-capped Alpes Maritimes ring the horizon, surmounted by a swelling, ascending bank of altocumulus cloud, caused by the convection of warm Mediterranean air with frigid Alpine temperatures.
Signac painted Le Musoir (Port d’Antibes) in his accustomed divisionist manner, employing the larger, block-like strokes of pure and tinted colors that he favored after the turn of the century, which may be likened to the tesserae in a mosaic, such as those in the medieval Byzantine manner the artist had admired during his travels in Italy. The larger stroke rhythmically animates the essential flatness in Signac’s compositions, while also serving to construct the forms within them, revealing the impact of late Cézanne on his work, as Signac discussed in his letter to Fénéon. Matisse, Derain, Delaunay, Picabia, and others all worked their way through a similar divisionist phase, a rite of passage at that time for any devotee of colorism in painting, while working up their own contributions to early 20th century modernism.
This harmony of the ancient, timeless Mediterranean way of life, the grandeur of the Midi landscape, suffused throughout with the brilliant, crystalline splendor of light reflected off the waters around Antibes, must have been a balm for the artist’s troubled spirit during the difficult wartime period. Signac began another version of this subject in 1914, and completed it four years later (Cachin, no. 504; Private collection), around the time he worked on the present painting for Fénéon’s friend Chrysis. The enclosed, protected harbor, with the beacon of its lighthouse providing a guiding light for the weary, storm-tossed maritime traveler, had served as safe haven for Signac during wartime. Now, with the return of peace, Signac was eager to venture forth, like the small fishing boat in this painting, and resume his work without impediment, while undertaking new journeys that would connect him with the wider world once again.