Just before the end of 1895, Siegfried Bing opened his gallery l’Art Nouveau in Paris. Its first exhibition included paintings by Cross, Van Rysselberghe and Paul Signac (1863-1935). In the New Year, Signac made his annual visit to Brussels, after which he and Van Rysselberghe toured the Netherlands together. In the Spring, it was time once again for the Salon des Indépendants, followed by the summer spent at Saint-Tropez, with the Van Rysselberghes as guests. Signac started preliminary work for The Demolisher (1897-9, see later) by way of a lithograph, which was published in an anarchist review.
During the winter of 1896-97, Signac continued to develop his etching and lithography with the aid of Théo van Rysselberghe. His itinerary in 1897 omitted the winter visit to Belgium, replacing it with a couple of weeks sketching and painting Mont-Saint-Michel, the famous tidal island on the Normandy coast. Before the annual Salon des Indépendants had closed at the end of May, Signac travelled south to Saint-Tropez, where he painted a series from his visit to Mont-Saint-Michel.
Once he had completed those, he turned to local landscape views. Among those is Saint-Tropez. Route de la Foux, also known as Golfe Juan, (1897). This looks back at Saint-Tropez from the main road running west towards Port Cogolin at the end of this small bay. Visible to the left is Saint-Tropez lighthouse, and its bell tower in the centre.
Signac was back in Paris by November, where his family moved apartment, and just after Christmas purchased their house La Hune in Saint-Tropez.
In the Spring of 1898, Signac visited London, from where he wrote excitedly that he had discovered “the unknown magic of Turner”, as well as studying many of the great paintings in the National Gallery. However, that summer Théo van Rysselberghe began to move away from Neo-Impressionism in a bid to take his art back towards nature, and the two fell into dispute as a result.
Signac started painting Saint-Tropez. The Terrace on 16 August 1898, aiming to complete it about ten days later. It shows his wife Berthe (detail below) on the Italianate terrace that they had built at their house La Hune. It looks north, over vineyards and the town of Saint-Tropez with its distinctive bell tower, the small bay beyond, to the Maures hills in the distance. The artist envisaged the lone figure being a young woman who was the victim of tuberculosis, in the sunset of her life.
This detail shows how Signac uses a fine black outline to pick out the figure and her arm. Although slightly larger than his regular landscapes, its patches of colour are relatively coarse. To have completed this in just ten days must have demanded long and intense hours applying those tiny brushstrokes.
Early that autumn, Signac visited the busy port and city of Marseille, where he started work on several views, including this maritime of the Entrance of the Port of Marseille (1898).
During the winter of 1898-99, he worked in Paris with Édouard Vuillard and Odilon Redon on an exhibition of post-Impressionist art they intended to mount at the Durand-Ruel Gallery. This took place in March 1899, and included work by other Nabis too. Signac then spent much of the rest of the year in their new house at Saint-Tropez.
He also painted this industrial view of the Pont de Grenelle (1899), a bridge crossing the River Seine in the west of central Paris, now better known as the Pont de Grenelle-Cadets de Saumur. The structure shown here was built in 1873, but has since been replaced in 1966. This features the Eiffel Tower, which had only been completed a decade earlier as the centrepiece of the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Its industrial design fits well with the smoking chimneys breaking the rest of the skyline, and the busy river filling much of the rest of the canvas.
Signac’s major work over the period immediately before the new century was The Demolisher or The Wrecker, first conceived in 1896, when he made a lithograph of his initial composition. It is rooted in his anarchism, and generally read as the worker demolishing the capitalist state.
He began work on this painting by the start of 1897, with the intention of making a series with the overall theme of labour, to include boat haulers and builders. By the time that he had completed it two years later, his enthusiasm had waned, and he never started work on any of its projected companions. This painting wasn’t exhibited until 1901, and it remained in his studio until after Signac’s death more than thirty years later.
The detail below shows its swirling patches of colour, again with a fine black line to help the figure stand crisply from its background.
Signac was ready to return to the brilliant light and calm sea of the Midi.
Cachin F (2000) Signac. Catalogue raisoné de l’Oeuvre Peint, Gallimard. ISBN 2 07 011597 6.
Ferretti-Bocquillon M et al (2001) Signac 1863-1935, Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 08860 4.
Ferretti-Bocquillon M et al. (2013) Signac, les Couleurs de l’Eau, Gallimard. ISBN 978 2 07 014106 7.