About The Artwork
French painter, printmaker and author Paul Signac’s legacy is bound to neo-Impressionism, the style he enriched through his interactions with Georges Seurat and whose first-hand history he recorded in From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism (1899). His position as one of the eminent colorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries influenced generations of artists, the Fauvists most profoundly. The artist was also a passionate and accomplished sailor who sailed in regattas and spent much of his time exploring the harbors and waterways of France. Naturally, the coastal landscape of his native country, with its colorful vessels and crystal blue waters, comprised one of Signac’s most beloved subjects from the very beginning of his career, and established the artist firmly within a long tradition of maritime painters. Bateaux dans un Port represents a fertile exploration of this rich theme.
Signac painted harbors and rivers in front of the motif and in his studio. In his later years, he recorded these scenes in a journal using pencil and watercolor. Indeed, he devoted himself almost exclusively to an artistic and theoretical exploration of watercolor during the 1920s and early 1930s. Besides creating scores of watercolors, Signac also penned a scholarly treatise on the watercolors of Dutch painter Johan Bartholt Jongkind, whose works he revered. In this book, Signac describes what scholars believe to be his own personal views on watercolor. As he explained, “[a] watercolor is only a means of notation, a sort of memorandum, a rapid and fertile process, permitting a painter to enrich his repertoire of elements too transitory to be fixed by the slow process of painting in oil.”1 Signac’s watercolor technique is less restrained in execution than his signature neo-Impressionism, a disciplined and scientific approach to painting. In fact, his canvases of the same period retained the divisionist paint application, in which color is broken down into its component parts and applied in a mosaic-like fashion, best seen in works such as Entrée du Port de la Rochelle (1921, Musée d’Orsay). Bateaux Dans un Port, like other works on paper from the same period, consists of curvilinear pencil marks loosely fleshed out with vivid washes of pure, clear watercolor.
In Bateaux Dans un Port, Signac eschewed the course, textured watercolor paper in favor of a paper that has a smooth, absorbent surface more suited for printmaking. Pencil strokes and watercolor washes work in tandem. He used not thin pencil lines but rather bold marks of varying widths, intensities, and shapes made with the broad face of the pencil, which define form through shading, such as on the back of the boat. He then applied touches of transparent color, thin in some areas, more concentrated in others. The interaction of the graphite and the watercolor capture the fugitive elements: moving water, shifting light, and the colorful reflections of the rocking boats and swaying trees. Signac employed a relatively small color range, along with silvery white touches of gouache in the sky and water.
Assistant Professor, Frederik Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University
- Paul Signac, quoted in Peter A. Wick, “Paul Signac Exhibition,” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 52, no. 289 (October 1954), 66.