In November 1903, Camille Pissarro died in Paris. Although his relationship with Paul Signac (1863-1935) had been strained at times, and ‘Père’ Pissarro had been a fierce critic of Signac’s Neo-Impressionism since his return to mainstream Impressionism, it marked the end of an era.
In the late winter of 1904, the twentieth Salon of the Indépendants saw the exhibition of another five of Signac’s paintings. He also met Henri Matisse there, and invited him to Saint-Tropez. At the same time, another five of his paintings were being exhibited in Brussels, alongside Impressionist works.
Signac then left Paris in the middle of April and travelled to Venice, where he made over two hundred watercolour sketches but no oil paintings, before returning in May. Through the summer, from July to October, the Matisses stayed in Saint-Tropez.
Signac’s fascination with Venice had been inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, in particular The Stones of Venice. In the course of the next couple of years, he turned his large collection of studies into a succession of major Neo-Impressionist oil paintings. Among the first, which he completed in 1904, was this view of the Giudecca Anchorage showing the church of Santa Maria della Salute. This set the compositional approach for many of his views of ports, with colourful vessels in the foreground, and lofty buildings dissolving in the distance.
Another example from 1904 is this painting of The Lagoon. Yellow Sail with its rhythmic reflections.
The Green Sail (1904) features the church of San Giorgio in the distance.
At the end of 1904, Signac had a one-man show at the sumptuous Galerie Druet in Paris, including twenty finished paintings, ten oil sketches, and twenty watercolour sketches, mostly of Venice. It proved both a critical and commercial success, and impressed Matisse as well.
The Spring of 1905 brought the twenty-first Salon of the Indépendants, which that year included retrospectives of the work of Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat. Soon after its opening, Signac headed south for Saint-Tropez, which brought him together with the artists Henri Manguin, Henri Matisse, Charles Camoin and Albert Marquet.
Basin of San Marco, Venice, which Signac completed in 1905, is one of the largest of his paintings of ports. This shows, at the left, San Giorgio Maggiore, in the centre Santa Maria della Salute, and to the right the Doges’ Palace and the Campanile of Piazza San Marco. In the foreground is a flotilla of bragozzi with their colourful sails.
Signac’s preparations for this had been careful if not painstaking. They led from his watercolour sketches to a squared drawing with formal geometry and a planned colour scheme, which he then enlarged onto the canvas. He was clearly pleased with the result, and this work was featured in many of his subsequent major exhibitions.
My favourite among his views of Venice is the Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice (1905). The foreground is dominated by a shimmering and jumbled parade of gondolas, and melting into the distance is the towering silhouette of Santa Maria della Salute.
In late 1905, Signac used a similar approach on two views of the port of Marseilles. Starting with watercolour studies made in front of the motif, he developed those in his studio in Saint-Tropez, probably completing this finished oil painting in early 1906. His view from the docks of the old, and ancient, port looks towards the exaggerated limestone hill on top of which is the seafarers’ church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the ‘good mother’.
Shown in the detail below is his evolving technique built from small rectangular tesserae of paint, coarser-grained in the foreground, finer and almost merging in the distance and sky. Its overall effect is of luminous and vibrant colour. This painting was shown later that year at the annual exhibition of the Indépendants.
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.