When Signac first traveled to the city of Istanbul in the spring of 1907, he was immediately struck by both the grandeur and history of the place, and the unique quality of light and color that filled the ancient city. The artist returned to France with a series of tantalizing canvases on the subject, the largest and most flamboyant of which is La Corne d'Or (Constantinople). As he observed in his diary: "There is the shrouded light of the North against the color of the Orient. One thinks of London, of Rotterdam—and of Venice a bit. Above all, it is Turnerian" (P. Signac quoted in P. Signac (exhibition catalogue), Fondation Gianadda, Martigny, 2003, p. 122).
This historic meeting place of East and West had captivated Signac’s imagination for some time before he finally discovered it for himself while sailing between Naples and Greece. The location inspired twelve paintings, all of which take as their subject the historically significant Golden Horn, a flooded estuary of the Bosphorus near the port of Istanbul. This passage of water was one of the key entrances to the Ottoman capital at this time and a busy waterway, teeming with life.
In La Corne d'Or (Constantinople) the skyline of the city is easily recognizable in the background, with the famous minarets of the Hagia Sophia an unmistakable silhouette on the horizon. This ethereal vision, which floats in a miasma of delicate pinks and purples, is framed to either side by an array of boats and ships rendered in vibrant colors that suggest the energy and bustling activity of the modern city. The brilliant luminosity of the composition is typical of Signac’s late style and is wonderfully effective here in paying homage to the historical legacy and richness of the city whilst bringing a fresh vivacity to its portrayal, recalling the heady visions of his prior European expeditions.
While his paintings of Istanbul date from 1907, Signac had begun travelling more extensively throughout Europe in 1904, visiting other major port cities such as London, Rotterdam and Venice (see figs. 1 & 2). Unlike Monet, whose travels were occasioned by the search for new visual stimuli (see fig. 3), Signac’s travels were to a certain extent programmatic in intent and the present work very much belongs within this major "series" of late paintings. "At the turn of the century, Signac’s paintings tended toward a decorative classicism, manifested by broad, well-considered and balanced compositions. His project for a series of views of famous ports, inspired by a similar series by Joseph Vernet, was realized in unusually large-scale pictures.... Conscious of working within a historic tradition, Signac no longer proclaimed a modernity justified by science but alluded to his predecessors, great marine painters like Turner and Claude Lorrain who celebrated light" (M. Ferretti-Bocquillon in Signac (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 225). Though infused with sublime pigments unseen in the palettes of his nineteenth-century predecessors, Signac’s La Corne d'Or (Constantinople) owes a debt to Turner’s iridescent renderings of many port towns, as notably echoed resplendent skies of the English painter’s Roman scenes from 1828 (see fig. 4).
The contemporary critic and key supporter of the Neo-Impressionists, Félix Fénéon, was aware of this same alliance with historical precedents when he wrote, "chromatic opulence in Paul Signac’s paintings decorates deliberate, audacious and rhythmic compositions which inevitably bring to mind the names of great masters such as Poussin and Claude Lorrain" (quoted in J. Sutter, ed., Neo-Impressionists, Greenwich, 1970, p. 60). The artist himself wrote on this topic when he published D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme in 1899. Signac concentrated on the relationship between naturalistic depiction and decorative abstraction. As Michael Marlais writes: "he spoke of the triumph of abstraction over realism, the very underpinning of modern art. The concept of the decorative was very weighty indeed for the Neo-Impressionist painters because it separated them from all the illusionistic, realistic manners of the past. It made the Neo-Impressionists modern. Yet at the same time, it also connected them with the past" (M. Marlais, "Neo-Impressionism, Puvis de Chavannes, and the Decorative Aesthetic" in Neo-Impressionism, Artists on the Edge (exhibition catalogue), Portland Museum of Art, Portland, 2002, p. 54).
Yet, while Signac looked to past masters for inspiration in subject matter, these canvases also provided an arena in which he could continue to experiment with technique. When he painted the current work in 1907, Signac was further developing his artistic style beyond the strict tenets of Divisionism which he had adopted from Georges Seurat in the 1880s. He liberated his color palette, daring to blend the pure pigments seen in earlier works, and broadened his approach while retaining the main characteristics of Divisionism through his pointed application of brushstrokes. This mature style was characterized by a subtle exploration of the nuances of light combined with a chromatic richness that is a key quality of La Corne d'Or (Constantinople). When the critic Claude Roger-Marx first saw one of the Instanbul series paintings on the walls of the 1908 Salon des Indépendants it caused him to observe: "It is important to recognize that no other painter has applied the new technique with more intelligence or authority than Paul Signac. His view of the Corne d’or, which is of the highest order, exemplifies the high intensity of luminous and chromatic expression that Neo-Impressionism can reach" (C. Roger-Marx, Le Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, March 28, 1908, p. 117).
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