Signac's interest in La Rochelle began in 1911, when he first visited this picturesque port on the Atlantic coast of France during the summer of that year. The artist revisited this small fishing town many times, fascinated by the brightly coloured fishing boats as they sailed into the harbour between the Tour de St. Nicholas and the Tour de la Chaîne. Les Tours vertes, La Rochelle is among Signac's earliest oils on this subject, which he continued to paint until 1928 (fig. 1). According to Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon: 'Asked in 1922 why he painted La Rochelle so often, Signac is said to have replied: "I go there for the boats: for the color of the hulls and sails. A magnificent sight! They come from all over to sell fish, it's like a library of boats"' (M. Ferretti-Bocquillon in Signac (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 271).
In the present composition, Signac depicted the distinct architecture of La Rochelle, characterised by three towers around the port that were gradually incorporated into the fortifications which surround the town and have remained well preserved to this day. Throughout its history the towers stood as symbols of the town's influence and wealth, and Signac took great pleasure in painting the picturesque harbour and its architecture. The present work depicts one of the characteristic boats leaving the port, framed by two of its distinctive towers: the crenellated Tour Saint-Nicolas on the left and the round Tour de la Chaîne on the right, both dating from the fourteenth century. The Tour de la Lanterne, dating from the fifteenth century, is visible to the far right. The buildings, as well as the sea in front of them, are bathed in a shimmering green-blue light, probably indicating an evening setting.
In the spring of 1913 Signac exhibited another view of La Rochelle painted the previous year, Arc-en-ciel. La Rochelle, at the 29e Exposition de la Société des Artistes Indépendants. The work received praise from Guillaume Apollinaire, who in his review of the exhibition wrote about the artist's renewed talent, proclaiming: 'he has gained strength, contrasts seem less predictable and the canvas has depth. This is one of the best pieces from the Neo-Impressionist school' (G. Apollinaire, 'A travers le salon des Indépendants', in Montjoie, 18 March 1913, pp. 1-4, translated from French). Several months after the exhibition Signac visited La Rochelle again in late summer, during his travels along the Atlantic coast, when the present work was executed.
The reflection of buildings and sailing boats on the water's surface demonstrates the artist's fascination with the effects of light. Built of small, quick brushstrokes of bright colours, the present composition uses a patchwork-like technique that creates an energetic, shimmering effect characteristic of Signac's mature style. By the time he painted the present work, Signac had developed his pointillist technique so that his dabs of paint had become larger than the more tightly spaced dots of his earlier compositions. The overall chromatic impact of these pictures was like that of a tiled mosaic, and the individualised colour patches held an expressiveness and freedom that characterised many of the artist's most accomplished works. Here he also paid particular attention to the depiction of the sky which, with its dramatic, twisting white clouds presents a certain hommage to Van Gogh (fig. 2).
Fig. 1, Paul Signac, Entrée du port de La Rochelle, 1921, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Fig. 2, Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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