Bathed in the rich golden light of the setting sun, the port of Saint Tropez appears as a tranquil haven in Paul Signac’s 1892 canvas Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint Tropez), one of the first works he created following his arrival in the scenic harbour town. Escaping what he referred to as the ‘so-called intellectual crap’ of the Parisian art scene, Signac had travelled south in the spring of that year, following the recommendations of his friend and fellow pointillist, Henri Edmond Cross, who had recently moved to the area (Signac, quoted in ed. M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, A. Distel, J. Leighton & S. Stein, Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 172). Arriving into the port of Saint-Tropez aboard his yacht during the second week of May, he found a bucolic world of sunshine and sailing, an untouched oasis that had retained its timeless character during a period in which the French landscape was being dramatically transformed by encroaching industrialisation. Signac eloquently conveys an impression of this peaceful atmosphere in this composition, focusing on the elegant curves of a traditional tartane fishing boat as it pulls into harbour for the evening, its sails caught by the breeze. The harbour walls curve around the small inlet, demarcating the confines of the port while simultaneously anchoring and balancing the water-filled composition. Painted in individual daubs of vibrant, saturated, complementary colours, Signac uses the intricate pointillist technique to capture the spectacular drama of the evening light, focusing on the contrasting play of deep violet shadows and the final golden rays of the day.
Signac had first begun to experiment with pointillism during a period of intense creativity in the 1880s, whilst working directly alongside the pioneering painter, Georges Seurat. The pair had met in 1884 while organising the inaugural Salon des Artistes Indépendants, and from there engaged in a rich and constantly evolving artistic dialogue, underpinned by a strong bond of friendship. In many ways, the two shared a master-pupil relationship, with the classically trained Seurat shaping and influencing the slightly younger Signac’s approach to painting. As Signac was a self-taught painter, he welcomed Seurat’s knowledge, seeing his art as a model on which he could base his own developing technique and style, while also reinforcing his interest in colour and structure. Pointillism became a central element of their collaboration, an effect which involved the painstaking application of dots of pure colour to the canvas in layers of increasing density.
Drawing on a variety of scientific studies into the physics of light, the interaction of coloured pigments, and the psychology of perception, Signac and Seurat utilised this technique to bring a new luminosity and optical vibrancy to their painting. The dynamic brushwork and spontaneity of the Impressionists gave way to a method that stressed control, permanence and carefully measured polyphony, giving birth to a new movement that would become known as Neo-Impressionism. Explaining the power of this effect, Signac wrote in his seminal treatise D’Eugéne Delacroix au néo- impressionnisme (1899): ‘It guarantees the integral harmony of the work by the proportion and balance of these elements, depending on the rules of contrast, shading and radiance. It is a precise and scientific method, which does not enfeeble sensation, but guides and protects it’ (Signac, ‘D’Eugéne Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme,’ in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed., C. Harrison & P. Wood, Oxford & Malden, 1997, p. 22).
While Seurat was the original progenitor of pointillism, Signac quickly embraced the fastidious technique, attracted to the extreme rigour and discipline required to achieve the distinctive, carefully delineated mosaic-like brushwork and intricate colour patterns of the style. Referencing the optical theories of Charles Blanc, M.-C. Chevreul and Ogden Rood, he began to build his canvases through veils of delicate touches of pigment, exploring the effects of light through a complex play of dazzling, complementary colour. This technique, in which pigments from opposite sides of the colour spectrum were contrasted against one another to mutually enhance the brilliance of each hue, allowed Signac to achieve a greater luminosity in his compositions. Alongside this, Charles Henry’s theories regarding perception and the emotional resonance of lines may have also influenced the artist’s work during this period – he created a number of studies which explored Henry’s ideas, as well as providing illustrations for several of the eccentric polymath’s publications. Yet, despite the artist’s naturally enquiring mind and continuous fascination with recent scientific developments and theories, it was his own artistic intuition which remained the guiding light in Signac’s paintings.
Conceived in terms of tonalities, rhythms and harmonies, Signac’s pointillist paintings achieved an effect that was at once still and controlled, and yet alive with a thousand points of pigment, which shifted between small, precise dots of paint to longer, almost rectangular strokes that seem held together by a strange, internal gravity. Each touch of colour was carefully considered for the effect it would bring to the canvas, from the initial swathes of luminous pigment which demarcate the underlying structure of the landscape, to the tiny points of colour added at the final stage of the composition’s creation to reinforce the drawing or to enhance the subtle nuances Signac detected in the view. In Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez), the artist uses this effect to demarcate the edge of the harbour wall in the foreground, emphasising the line between dry land and the lapping water with small touches of yellow and green, as well as in the treeline to the left hand side of the composition, where small points of orange appear in the mass of green and blue strokes, as if the fading sun is catching the leaves and transforming them with its light.
However, less than a decade after their first meeting, the blossoming partnership between Seurat and Signac was cruelly cut short. In March 1891, Seurat succumbed to the effects of diphtheria, passing away at the age of just 31. Signac was profoundly affected by his friend’s untimely death, with acquaintances such as Camille Pissarro commenting on the artist’s palpable shock at both Seurat’s funeral and later at the Salon des Indépendants. Despite his grief, Signac immediately took it upon himself to ensure Seurat’s artistic legacy, organising a number of posthumous showings of his work. These efforts, coupled with the delicate task of settling Seurat’s estate, left Signac in a state of despair and exhaustion by the end of the year. In need of recuperation and an escape from the turbulence of Paris, Signac decided to follow his friend Cross to the Mediterranean, buoyed by his letters which described the landscape as a sun-drenched paradise. And so, in the spring of 1892 he set sail for the south of France, on a voyage that would dramatically impact the rest of his artistic career.
Departing from Finistère in his eleven metre yacht Olympia, which he had named after Manet’s ground breaking painting of the same name, Signac travelled along the Atlantic Coast, through the Canal du Midi, finally reaching the sun-soaked coastline of the Mediterranean after almost a month of sailing. Here he discovered the serene port of Saint Tropez, at this time a quaint coastal hub, only easily accessible by boat. In the 1880s, the naturalist writer Guy de Maupassant had visited the area, describing Saint Tropez as ‘one of those modest little towns, growing in the sea like a shell, nourished by fish and sea air, and producing sailors... You smell fishing and boiling tar, brine and the hulls of boats; you see sardine scales, like pearls, on the cobbled streets, and harbour walls peopled by old sailors...’ (Maupassant, quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005, p. 280).
Struck by the town’s beauty, and the untouched, timeless character of the sea port, Signac decided to make Saint Tropez his home. While the artist had previously made several visits to the Mediterranean coast, spending the summer of 1887 at Collioure, and returning two years later to the town of Cassis, it was at Saint Tropez that he truly reached a critical turning point in his art. Writing to his mother shortly after his arrival, Signac expressed his euphoria at finding the small fishing village: ‘I am settled here since yesterday and overjoyed. Five minutes out of town, in the midst of pine trees and roses, I discovered a pretty little furnished cottage... In front of the golden coast of the gulf, the blue sea breaking on a small beach, my beach...and a good anchorage for the Olympia. In the background the blue silhouettes of the Maures and the Esterel – there is enough material to work on for the rest of my days. Happiness – that is what I have just discovered’ (Signac, quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon et al., op. cit., p. 172).
Signac particularly savoured the bustling mix of boats, water and people that centred around the town’s harbour, its energy and constantly changing character drawing him to its shoreline on an almost daily basis. From the array of fishing vessels entering and exiting the harbour at regular intervals, to the locals who hovered around the edges of the water, doing business or simply chatting about the day, this central hub soon became a recurrent theme in his work, with the artist executing views of the harbour from a myriad of different perspectives, at a variety of different times of day. In Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint Tropez) the visual drama of the setting sun is offset by the tranquillity of the sea, as the water gently ripples against the walls while a modest boat, manned by a small crew, glides through the water towards the viewer. The sinuous curves of the sails extend outwards from the diagonal mast and seem to echo the undulating profile of the hills along the horizon line, an effect accentuated by their similar mixture of blue and purple tones. These cool notes offer a striking contrast to the rich golden yellow hues that dominate much of the rest of the canvas, while the delicate shades of violet that make up the shadows complement the warmth of the sunset as it is reflected in the sea.
Indeed, one of the most spectacular elements of this work is Signac’s use of such vibrant, saturated colours, which may have been influenced in part by the pure, crystalline light and high-keyed colour palette of Saint Tropez itself. This offered a welcome change from the silvery light of the north, which tended to soften the colours in both land- and seascapes, and which had dominated his earlier paintings at Cassis and Collioure to the point that they were considered exceedingly pale by many of his contemporaries. By immersing himself in the full, sun-drenched atmosphere of Saint Tropez, Signac brought richer colour effects to his work, ushering in an array of deep golden hues and sonorous blue tones. As he spent more time in the south of France through the rest of the 1890s, Signac increasingly simplified the compositional content of his work in order to heighten the effects of colour across his canvases, incorporating more luminous shades and an increasingly flexible brushstroke into his style.
However, in Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint Tropez) Seurat’s influence still dominates, as is evident in the highly controlled application of the pointillist technique. The entire surface is made up of a delicate interplay of colourful dots, their forms grouped in dense layers of contrasting and complementary hues. Lending the painting a rich, textured pattern, this causes the surface to appear as if it is vibrating or shimmering before the viewer. The effect is most noticeable in the mixture of bright, fiery orange and deep, midnight blues that populate the foreground of the image, and in the shifting, rippling, surface of the water. Tapping into the effects of optical mixing, Signac adds subtle accents and nuances of colour to the scene, lending a new energy and vitality to the composition. Having said this, there remains an inherent stillness to the painting, as the boat moves silkily through the still waters towards the harbour. This sensation is amplified by the artist’s repetition of certain colours in different elements of the painting – the sails of the ship in the middle-ground, for instance, contain two distinct colour patterns which are used in both the mountainous landscape in the background, and the shoreline in the foreground. Thus, colour becomes a unifying element that ties all three spaces together, lending the scene a distinct sense of harmony.
Exuding a sense of tranquillity and timelessness, Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint Tropez) appears almost like a romanticised vision of the Midi, conjured by Signac’s imagination. Conveying the overwhelming warmth and serene atmosphere that pervaded life in Saint Tropez during the summer of 1892, the work can be seen as an embodiment of Félix Fénéon’s belief that Signac’s paintings ‘cause a harmonious and nostalgic dream to blossom in the light’ (Fénéon, quoted in ibid, p. 12). In this way, Signac steps away from the blatant modernity of such compositions as Seurat’s La grande jatte, and instead presents his viewer with a timeless image that evokes the beauty, harmony and happiness he found in this little town on the Mediterranean coast of France during his first summer there. Signac was evidently pleased with his achievements in Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint Tropez), exhibiting it at the Hôtel Brébant just a few months after its creation, in December 1892. This was the first exhibition in which the Neo- Impressionists were represented as a distinctive, unified, coherent group, and was seen as an integral tool for shaping the public perception of the group following the death of Seurat. From here, it travelled to Belgium for the Les XX exhibition in 1893, after which the artist gave the painting to his friend, the journalist, novelist, playwright and art critic Georges Lecomte.