With the depression of the war behind him, in the nineteen-twenties the art of Paul Signac (1863-1935) took a new direction. While he continued to paint occasional oils in his long-established Pointillist style, he developed his watercolours ferociously. Rather than spending his summers in the heat of the Midi, he took to the cooler climate of Brittany.
In 1925, Signac combined Conté crayon (a proprietary type of hard pastel) with watercolour to paint this view of Lézardrieux. This is a village at the far western end of the French Channel coast, and a popular port with yachtsmen. He appears to have sharpened the Conté crayon to use it to sketch the outlines before applying watercolour wash, in a manner not unlike the late watercolours of Paul Cézanne.
That same year, he travelled south from there to the northern end of the Bay of Biscay, where he painted this view of L’île-aux-Moines (1925), one of two islands off that section of the coast of Brittany.
In early 1929, Signac started work on a commissioned series of watercolours of the ports of France, his greatest project since before the war. That took him first to the Midi in Spring, Brittany over the summer, and along the Channel coast into 1930. He completed the series back on the Mediterranean coast in April 1931.
On 13 August 1929, Signac was on the north coast of Brittany, where he painted the small working harbour at Paimpol, another minor port near Lézardrieux, in his series of the ports of France.
In his travels painting those ports, he reached Les Sables d’Olonne in about 1929. This is a small port with a beautiful sandy bay, which has long been popular with visitors, situated in the Vendée, about half-way up the Atlantic coast in the Bay of Biscay.
He painted this view of Pont Royal and the Gare d’Orsay in Paris in about 1929-30, using black crayon and watercolour. Now appropriately housing the Musée d’Orsay, at the time this was one of the major railway stations of Paris. The Palais d’Orsay was destroyed by fire during the Paris Commune in 1871, and its remains were left derelict until it was redeveloped as a railway station at the end of the century. It opened for passengers in time for the Exposition Universelle in 1900, but much of the station was closed by the beginning of 1973 due to its short platforms. The Musée d’Orsay opened in renovated buildings there in 1986.
Pont Royal is perhaps the city’s most painted bridge, as it links the Quai d’Orsay with the Tuileries and the Louvre. This reverses his earlier composition in his oil painting of Le Pont des Arts from 1928, below.
With his ports of France series complete, Signac returned to The Old Port of Marseille in 1931, for a different view from those he had painted earlier of the main harbour and the church of La Bonne-Mère.
In 1935 Signac visited the French island of Corsica at last. After years of living in the Midi, the closest part of mainland France to this large island in the Mediterranean, he crossed by ferry and painted many watercolour views there.
This view of the capital, on the west coast of the island, is claimed to have been painted in 1931, although I suspect that should be 1935. This town was the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, and as a port forms Corsica’s main connection to mainland France.
Corsica (1935) is a view of a large sailing vessel alongside in a harbour on the island.
Bastia (1935) shows Corsica’s second town, at the island’s north-eastern tip. This too is a major ferry port, with connections to Toulon in France and to Italy.
Finally, I have two undated paintings from Signac’s late watercolours.
His view of Landerneau executed in watercolour and pencil shows another town in Brittany, in its far north-west near the major port of Brest.
The Pont de la Feuillée in Lyon shows a major bridge over the River Saône in the centre of the city of Lyon. This version of the bridge had only been built in 1912, and was replaced in 1936.
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.