An exceptionally rare and radiant example of Signac’s mature career, Lac Léman is an epitomal Neo-Impressionist composition. Replete with the kaleidoscopic hues and divisionist brushwork which defined the movement at the turn of the century, Lac Léman stands as an artistic and personal testament to the radical painter.
Born in Paris in 1863, Signac came of age in the bohemian artist epicenter of Montmartre where he absorbed the revolutionary works on display in gallery windows and visited the nascent Impressionist exhibitions which galvanized the art world. As a young man, Signac showed a marked independent streak. By the age of twenty, he had disavowed formal artistic training, having eschewed brief apprenticeships in favor of his self-taught “lessons” along the Seine and northern coast of France. By this time, Signac had also developed a love affair with sailing which would continue throughout his life, and which permeated every aspect of his artistic career. While Signac soon found himself amid the literary circles in Paris, associating with art critics like Joris-Karl Huysman, Paul Alexis and Félix Fénéon—who in 1886 would coin the term “Neo-Impressionism”—it was an 1880 exhibition of Monet’s works which would catalyze the young Signac’s career as a painter.
In 1884, Signac participated in the first exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants alongside Henri-Edmond Cross and Georges Seurat, who would become close friends and artistic influences (see fig. 1). The artists shared similar ambitions, wanting to paint the modern world while incorporating the emerging scientific theories on color first promulgated by French chemist Eugène Chevreul. In 1824, the scientist was appointed by Louis XVIII as head of the Gobelins manufactory and charged with improving the color of tapestries created at these government-controlled workshop. Chevreul’s research led to the concept of “simultaneous contrast,” a notion that adjacent colors impact the perception of the surrounding colors which would impact artist for decades to follow. After the watershed exhibition of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grand Jatte in 1884, Signac began incorporating small dots of pure, unmixed color in a similar stippling effect within his own compositions. By the early 1900s, the divisionist technique had grown in scope from tiny pointillist dots to larger, directional swathes of vibrant pigment, as exemplified by Lac Léman.
Painted in 1903-04, the present work displays a glorious tableau of Lake Geneva (known as Lac Léman in French) near the Swiss border town of St. Gingolph. With the Impressionistic reverence for light and his enduring exaltation of color, Signac renders a rare view of the serene body of water, offsetting the craggy purplish Alps with daubs of white and cerulean and ultramarine blues. Rich in pigments from across the chromatic spectrum, the midground of the composition features a number of aquatic vessels, including two steamboats at center and two sail boats. The detailed attention lavished on the these ships, as witnessed in careful rendering of the flags along the mast of the steamboat and the characteristic triangular lateen sails, attests to the painter’s understanding and love of the nautical pastime. The specificity of these peculiar types of boats belies the artist's authentic connection to a region long celebrated for its leisure activities and picturesque environs (see fig. 2).
Signac arrived in St. Gingolph in 1903 amid his travels between Venice and Antibes. Though dated 1903 on the front of the canvas, the work appears in the artist’s notebook from 1904, indicating that it was likely finalized in the following year. While Signac’s lifelong peregrinations would take the artist to myriad waterways and ports across France including those near Marseille, Avignon, Antibes (see fig. 3), St. Briac and La Rochelle, as well as international destinations like Venice, Rotterdam and Constantinople, his time in Switzerland is only documented by the handful of later watercolors and the present composition in oil, seemingly unique in his oeuvre.
Around the time this work was completed, Signac, Seurat and Cross spent a summer painting together along the coast of St. Tropez. At Signac’s invitation, the retinue of Neo-Impressionists was joined by the younger and lesser-known Henri Matisse. The bold palette and experimental techniques of the older artists, paired with the incomparable light of the Midi region, inspired Matisse to paint Luxe, calme et volupté (see fig. 4). Though Matisse would never fully adopt the Neo-Impressionist style and credo, Luxe, calme et volupté would become a canonical work in Modern art history, marking the genesis of the Fauve movement and inspiring countless artists to continue working in riotously bold palettes (see fig. 5).
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