Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (acquired from the artist in 1908)
Moderne Galerie Thannhauser, Berlin (acquired from the above in 1927)
Private Collection, Berlin (acquired from the above, thence by descent and sold: Christie's, London, June 29, 1999, lot 32)
Acquired at the above sale
Venice, XIIe Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte della Citta di Venezia, 1920, no. 59
Venise, La Douane de mer was inspired by Signac's visit to Venice in the spring of 1908. It depicts a view along the Grand Canal, with the customs building, or La douane de mer (see fig. 3), visible on the right. Signac had first planned to visit Venice in the summer of 1903, his fascination with the city partly influenced by John Ruskin's popular The Stones of Venice, but postponed his travels until the following year. He arrived there at the end of March 1904, staying until May, and producing a large number of watercolours during his sojourn. Several of Signac's Venice oils were exhibited at the 1905 Salon des Indépendants, where they were greatly admired by both the public and the critics. Louis Vauxcelles wrote at the time: "nothing is more vibrant, more atmospheric, than the shimmering Venice of M. Signac."
The present work was executed during a subsequent visit in 1908 with his wife Berthe. Signac arrived in Italy in February of that year, and having visited various place in northern Italy including Portofino, Florence and Sienna, towards the end of March he arrived in Venice, where he stayed until early May. Signac painted Venise, La Douane de mer on a bright, sunny day, and the city's landmark features – the customs house, a gondola, and large sailing boats in the distance – are all beautifully reflected on the water surface. The subject of a busy port, framed by remarkable architecture in the background, provided a constant source of inspiration for the artist throughout his extensive travels. During his visit to Constantinople in 1907, Signac painted a number of views of the city seen across the water surface (see fig. 1), using the same vibrant palette as in the present work. His mosaic-like brushwork, juxtaposing dabs of bright blue, green, pink and yellow pigment, gives the scene the shimmering effect that the artist admired.
Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon wrote that "the City of the Doges had everything to offer the avid museum-goer Signac had become in his search for new subject matter. He visited an impressive number of churches and museums, always delighted when he found in the masterpieces of the past traces of an instinctive use of the principles of color division and contrast. Between museum visits he enjoyed the spectacle of the city and executed a large number of watercolors [...] Signac was enchanted by the play of light, water, and sky, and the color of the monuments. Clear architectural forms dissolved in the atmosphere in his compositions, which were often centered on boats, gondolas, or bragozzi with colorful sails" (Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon, in Signac (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 233-234).
Situated at the entrance to the Grand Canal, the handsome colonnaded building named the Dogana di Mare (La Douane de mer) dates from the second half of the seventeenth century. Its tower is crowned by two Atlases holding up a bronze globe. Atop the globe, another statue - Fortuna - acts as a weathervane by holding a garment, or perhaps a ship's rudder, to the wind. In his book of travel writings Italian Hours, published in 1909, Henry James described the customs house in Venice: "The charming architectural promontory of the Dogana stretches out the most graceful of arms, balancing in its hand the gilded globe on which revolves the delightful satirical figure of a little weathercock of a woman. This Fortune, this Navigation, or whatever she is called - she surely needs no name - catches the wind in the bit of drapery of which she has divested her rotary bronze loveliness. On the other side of the canal twinkles and glitters the long row of the happy palaces which are mainly expensive hotels. There is a little of everything everywhere, in the bright Venetian air, but to these houses belongs especially the appearance of sitting, across the water, at the receipt of custom, of watching in their hypocritical loveliness for the stranger and victim."
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