Yvonne Dupont, Paris
Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired from the above in 1958)
John Langeloth Loeb, Sr. & Frances Lehman, New York (acquired from the above on July 1, 1958)
Acquired by descent from the above in 1996
Signac's canvases of this era were characterized by a systematic application of dots of colors, similar to the technique used by his colleague Seurat. Spearheading this innovative technique in the late 1880s and the early 1890s, Signac was well-regarded as the leading spokesperson for this innovative style of painting, a movement which had officially begun at the closing of the eighth and final Impressionist group exhibition in Paris in 1886. It was at this exhibition that “works appeared for the first time that were painted solely with pure, separated and balanced colors, mixing optically according to a rational method” (P. Signac, “Eugène Delacroix au néo-Impressionisme,” 1899, reprinted in C. Harrison & P. Wood, Art Theory, 1900-1990, Oxford & Cambridge, 1992, p. 21). At the time, though, this rational method of painting was highly radical in its juxtaposition of opposing colors and its exceedingly detailed approach to rendering a large scene in dot formation. The present work, created when Signac’s technique was at its peak, epitomizes his bold stylistic innovation. The artist's approach here was rooted in a careful study of geometry, with particular focus on the rigid horizontality of the port's architecture and its reflections on the water. And much in the manner of great Renaissance landscape painting, the bell tower of the church serves as the picture's vanishing point in this exquisite display of single-point linear perspective.
The term ‘neo-Impressionism’ was coined at the 1886 Impressionist group exhibition by the critic Félix Fénéon when referring to the paintings of Signac, Georges Seurat, and Camille and Lucien Pissarro. As the inheritors of the Impressionist tradition, these artists continued to depict the visual splendor of the modern world. Their approach to this artistic goal, however, was decidedly more scientific, relying upon harmonious resonance of color and a precise, divisionist application of paint known as pointillism. Robert Herbert provided the following explanation of this radically new approach: “Suddenly, the new Impressionists proclaimed that intense shimmering light need not spring from this hedonism of the retina. On the contrary, the insisted, the vibration of colored light must come from the patient and systematic application of nature’s immutable laws. With Seurat’s monumental Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte as standard bearer, 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” (R. Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, Princeton, 1968, p. 15).
Years after he painted the present composition, Signac continued to champion the pointillism and its great contribution to future generations of artists. He recognized that the Neo-Impressionist artists had paved a new way through uncharted artistic territory, and he concluded that the creative burden on future artists had been lessened by the discovery of these new painterly techniques: “In any case, they will not have repeated that which had been done before; they will have the risky honour of having produced a new way, of expressing a personal ideal. They can develop, but always on the bases of purity and of contrast; they knew the importance and charm of these too well ever to renounce them. Gradually freed from the hindrances of their beginnings, the technique of separation, which permitted them to express their dreams in colour, became more supple and advanced, promising even more fertile resources. And if there is no artist among them whose genius allows him to develop this technique further, at least they have simplified his task. The triumphant colourist has only to appear: his palette has been prepared for him” (P. Signac, Op. cit., p. 23).
The inscription, Op. 237 refers to the artist's numbering system to classify his paintings using the Latin 'Opus' (work). This practice stemmed from his interest in Charles Henry's studies of the rhythmic and harmonic analogies between music and painting, and Signac systematically employed this method of identification between 1887 and 1892.
According to Cachin's catalogue raisonné, the first owner of this picture was Denys Cochin (1851-1922), the French writer and right-wing politician who was appointed as Minister of the State during World War I. The picture then made its way into the collection of René Conus, the French Ambassador to Moscow. Cachin states that the next owner of record was "Mme Boris Kneeseff", who is presumably the same person as "Mme Boris Knyazev", otherwise known as Olga Spesivtseva (1895-1991), one of the most famous ballerinas of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Spesivtseva had an active stage career in Paris throughout the 1930s, but she was beset by hard times when she went to the United States, suffered a series of mental collapses and fell into obscurity. The picture eventually was acquired by Knoedler in 1958, who sold it through Sotheby's that same year to the family of Ambassador John Langeloth Loeb, Jr and Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez has been in this private collection for nearly sixty years.
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