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PAUL SIGNAC (1863-1935)
signed and dated '1902- P. Signac' (lower right)
oil on canvas
35 1/4 x 45 7/8 in (89.5 x 116.5 cm)
Painted in 1902
簽名及日期: '1902- P. Signac' (右下)
35 1/4 x 45 7/8 英吋 (89.5 x 116.5 公分)
Alfred Wolff Collection, Munich, by 1912.
A. Metthey Collection, by 1929.
Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, by 1930.
Maurice Segoura Collection, Paris, by 1974.
Galerie Les Tourettes, Basel, by 1974.
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, May 21, 1981, lot 539.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Paris, Société des Artistes Indépendants, 19e Exposition des artistes indépendants grandes serres de la Ville de Paris, March 20 – April 25, 1903, no. 2240.
Weimar, Musée Grand-Ducal, Deutsche und französische Impressionisten und Neo-Impressionisten, August 1903, no. 69 (titled 'Ansicht von Sisteron').
Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Der Französische Impressionismus, February 1904, no. 26 (titled 'Ansicht von Sisteron').
Paris, Galerie Druet, Exposition Paul Signac, December 13–31, 1904, no. 20.
Cologne, Städtische Ausstellungshalle, Internationale Kunstausstellung des Sonderbundes Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler zu Köln, May 25 – September 30, 1912, no. 195 (dated 1905).
Paris, Bernheim-Jeune, Exposition Paul Signac, May 19–30, 1930, no. 21.
Paris, Grand Palais, 47eme Exposition de la Société des Artistes Indépendants, Exposition posthume de Paul Signac, February 7 – March 8, 1936, no. 3054.
Amsterdam, The Van Gogh Museum, Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist, June - December 2001, no. 109 (later traveled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Cahier d'opus [The artist's handlist, produced 1887-1902] (listed as 'Sisteron').
Cahier manuscript [The artist's handlist, produced 1902-1909] (listed as 'Sisteron').
Anonymous, Le Petit Bleu de Paris, Paris, March 20, 1903, p. 2.
Laertes, La Dépêche de Toulouse, March 26, 1903, p. 2.
Pip, 'Carnet de Paris' in La Nouvelle Revue, March – April 1903, p. 419.
P. Morizet, Le Mouvement artistique et littéraire, April 5, 1903.
P. Du Mont, 'L'Exposition de la Société des artistes indépendants' in Le Journal des arts, April 11, 1903, p. 2.
G. Kahn, Le Journal du dimanche, April 29, 1903.
H. Cochin, 'Quelques Réflexions sur les Salons' in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, June 1, 1903, p. 457 (preliminary drawing illustrated).
F. Cachin, Signac, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Paris, 2000, no. 379 (illustrated pp. 129 & 257).
M. Ferretti-Boquillon, A. Distel, J. Leighton & S. Alyson Stein, Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist, exh. cat., New York, 2001, no. 109 (illustrated p. 231).
Painted in 1902, Sisteron is a rare and radiant masterpiece from the mature period of Paul Signac's career. Born in Paris in 1863 into a family who ran a chain of saddler's shops, Signac initially studied architecture. However, upon seeing a solo exhibition of Claude Monet on the premises of the review journal, La Vie moderne, the 18 year-old decided to change course and study painting. ''What was it that made me start painting? It was Monet," he said late in life. "The thing that attracted me to this artist was the revolutionary nature of his work" (Paul Signac quoted in M. Bocquillon-Ferretti, Signac, Reflections on Water, exh. cat., Lugano, 2016, p. 11).
Early in his career, Signac's art showed the influence of the Impressionists: not just Monet, but also Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. He was largely self-taught and never joined an academy or school of fine arts. He preferred instead to indulge in self-taught lessons, painting en plein air along the River Seine and on the northern coast of France. It was during this time – the early 1880s – that he discovered his passion for sailing and the water, a passion that would materialize in imagery throughout his career, Sisteron being a fine example.
In 1884, Signac helped form the Société des Artistes Indépendants, an association that would launch an annual exhibition known as the Salon des Indépendants, intended for artists dissatisfied with the rigidly conservative submission policy of the official Salon. Georges Seurat, who was four years his senior, was part of the association too, and would become a friend and close collaborator of Signac's in the years ahead. Together, the two men were united in a desire to explore fresh ways of painting, believing that a rational order should be imposed on the Impressionists' rather haphazard pictorial impressions of color and light. In 1886, the art critic Félix Fénéon coined the term 'Neo-Impressionism' when he first came across paintings in the new style by Signac, Seurat, and the two Pissarros – the father and son, Camille and Lucien (the former a leading erstwhile Impressionist).
The art historian Robert L. Herbert provided the following explanation of the style: "These artists exhibited works in bright colors laid down in tiny and systematic dabs of paint. Their paintings breathed a spirit of clear order, firm decision, scientific logic, and a startling definiteness of structure that constituted an open challenge to the instinctive art of the Impressionists of the previous decade. The most conspicuous act of defiance was their mechanical brushwork, which deliberately suppressed the personality of the artist and so flouted the individualism dear to the Impressionists" (quoted in Neo-Impressionism, Princeton, 1968, p. 15).
The artists were inspired in part by recent theories on optics and color perception by the likes of the chemist, Michel-Eugène Chevreul, whose book De la loi du contraste simultanée des couleurs ('On the Law of the Simultaneous Contrast of Colors') had been published in 1839. At the core of their practice was the principle of hue separation. The painter was to eschew the mixing of colors on his/her palette – and instead apply small strokes of pure color to the canvas, which the viewer's retina would combine at a distance. This was believed to increase chromatic intensity, and the result would be pictures that achieved an unprecedented brilliance of tone.
Perhaps the most celebrated Neo-Impressionist painting is Seurat's Un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la Grande Jatte ('A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,' 1884-86) which today forms part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Signac incorporated dots of unmixed color in a similar stippling effect within his own compositions: fastidiously building up canvases through delicate touches of pigment and exploring the effects of light through a dazzling play of complementary and contrasting hues (such a technique is often referred to as Pointillist, but Signac rejected that label).
Seurat passed away in 1891, aged 31, leaving Signac to take on the role as the solitary torchbearer for Neo-Impressionism. Roughly a year after his friend's death, seeking to put some distance between himself and the Paris art scene, Signac set sail from Brittany on a boat he owned, bound for the south of France. By chance, he discovered the tiny fishing port of St. Tropez in the Côte d'Azur, which was then anything but the chic tourist hotspot it has since become.
The place was a revelation to him, Signac writing in a letter to his mother shortly after starting his stay: "I am awash with joy... Before the golden shores of the bay, blue waves finish their course on a small beach... I have everything I need to work with for my whole life" (quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon et al. (eds.), Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 172).
In subsequent years, he would take myriad trips to St. Tropez, typically in summer and often for several months at a time. In 1897 he even bought a villa there called La Hune. Somewhat like his late friend, Vincent van Gogh – whom he had met and occasionally painted with on the Seine, when the Dutchman lived in Paris – Signac came to regard the south of France as the perfect location for a utopian society of the future. He made this explicit in the vast mural he painted in the mid-1890s, Au Temps d'Harmonie: L'âge d'or n'est pas dans le passé, il est dans l'avenir ('In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age has not Passed, It is Still to Come'), today found in the town hall of Montreuil just outside Paris. It depicts a sunlit arcadia by the Mediterranean coast, in which men, women and children strike a harmonious balance between work and leisure. They play boules, pick figs, read, paint, swim and dance – with not a hint of the industrialization that, in Signac's time, was characterizing life and landscapes in the north of France.
Generally, however, Signac avoided setting out explicit political messages in his art. As he wrote in an essay in the radical journal La Révolte in 1891, painters who innovated and pushed their medium forward would, in their own way, deal "a forceful blow of a pickaxe to the antiquated social structure."
A large part of Signac's attraction to the Côte d'Azur was the brilliant Mediterranean light. It's no exaggeration to say that this helped reinvigorate him artistically. The port and village of St. Tropez provided a constant source of subject matter. He was also known to travel to rural spots inland, typically sketching watercolors from nature in situ. He would later use these sketches as the basis for large, carefully composed canvases, painted when he was back in his studio at La Hune.
Such was the case in 1902 when in the first week of November, Signac undertook a five-day cycling tour. He passed through the communes of Frejus, Draguignan, Castellane, Digne, Sisteron, Manosque, Peyrolles, Rians, Barjols and La Garde Freinet. Upon finishing the trip, he wrote a letter to his friend and fellow Neo-Impressionist, Henri-Edmond Cross, saying that he had executed "some 20 watercolors. That's six a day! In the evening, I was bushed."
Two of the oil paintings that he went on to execute in his studio were Sisteron and its companion piece Castellane (private collection). Each depicts an ancient riverside town in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department.
Sisteron is situated in a narrow gorge on the River Durance and has come, over the centuries, to acquire the nickname of 'the Gateway to Provence.' In Signac's rendering, the rocky landscape is bathed in autumnal light, the scene consisting of two cliffs connected by a bridge, under which the river flows. Located on the cliff on the left are both the town of Sisteron – at low altitude – and a citadel perched high above it, 500 meters up. In the foreground, a shepherd lends the scene a bucolic character, as well as a sense of scale.
The visual drama of the sun setting over the gorge is offset by the tranquility of the river, the current of which can be seen rippling gently towards the bridge. Signac reveals his mastery at the gradation of colors, from warm ones to cool ones and back again, depending on the amount of sunlight hitting a given area. The dominant violet tonality – like the dark blue for the river – marks large parts of the scene in shadow. This contrasts with the golden hues of the elements on the periphery, illuminated as they are by the late-afternoon sun: namely the citadel, the peak of the cliff on the right, and the sandy terrain in the foreground. There's a similarly warm note to the tall fiery-red trees on the left, by the Durance's banks. The sky, meanwhile, framed by the local geography into a shape akin to an inverted triangle, adds light to the composition, fading almost to white.
In many ways, Sisteron is in keeping with the Neo-Impressionist paintings from earlier in Signac's career. The entire surface consists of a rich interplay of pure, patterned colors. However, as he increasingly came to do in the years after Seurat's death and after his acquaintance with the south of France, Signac made a subtle move towards the simplification of his compositional content in this work – and a subtle move away from naturalism – in a bid to heighten the color effects. From the latter part of the 1890s onwards, he began placing a greater emphasis on the decorative function of his art than the descriptive. As he explained in a letter to Cross, "simplification of the elements leads you to more color" (quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 15).
Such simplification was achieved via a less methodical application of paint than in Neo-Impressionism's early days. Signac's brushstrokes grew slightly looser and larger, now resembling irregular blocks more than dots. As much as the transcription of an actual landscape, Sisteron amounts to a harmonious conglomeration of brushstrokes shimmering their way across the picture surface.
The finished canvas is the result of painstaking chromatic orchestration. Given the rigors of his painterly process, Signac was never a prolific artist. The catalogue raisonné of his works lists Sisteron as one of only nine oil paintings he produced in 1902. It represents an artist at the peak of his creative powers.
Sisley set out a manifesto for his movement in a treatise called D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, which explained it as a key stage in the evolution of French painting, from Eugène Delacroix's emergence in the early-19th Century through to the time of writing at the turn of the 20th Century. The text was published in serial form in 1898, and then in book form a year later. The critic Guillaume Apollinaire claimed that it marked "an important date in the history of contemporary art."
Three keen early readers were Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, all of whom went to stay with Signac in St. Tropez in the summer of 1904. Signac's application of pure brilliant color proved a major influence on the trio, who before long made their names as the spearheads of the Fauvist movement. "His work opened up dazzling possibilities," wrote Matisse's biographer Hilary Spurling of Signac's influence on her subject (quoted in The Unknown Matisse, New York, 1998, p. 282). It was at La Hune, in fact, that Matisse painted his proto-Fauve masterpiece, Luxe, alme et volupté – the picture was immediately bought by Signac, and is today part of the Musee d'Orsay's collection in Paris.
D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme was translated into German in 1903, the same year that Sisteron was exhibited for the first time: in Paris in the 19th edition of the Salon des Indépendants. The painting was subsequently shown in Weimar and Krefeld, in two early exhibitions of Neo-Impressionism in Germany, and also in 1904 at a solo show of Signac's at Galerie Druet in Paris. Eight years later, Sisteron was among the artist's works included in the celebrated Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, which showcased the best of modern art from across Europe. Like Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Paul Gauguin, Signac was given the honor of a monographic room.
By that point, the painting was in the collection of its first owner, Dr. Alfred Wolff of Munich, a board member of Deutsche Bank and an eminent collector of modernist art. Its list of distinguished subsequent owners includes Maurice Segoura – one of Paris's most prestigious antiques dealers. The present owners, who acquired the work in 1981, lent it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist, the first major retrospective on the artist in over forty years. This long-overdue tribute to Signac's power of expression traced the artist's development from the luminous plein-air paintings he made in the early 1880s to the scintillating works of his maturity, where the rigors of pointillist style give way to richly patterned, mosaic-like surfaces of color.
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