Paul SIGNAC | Entry to the Port of Marseille [L'entrée du port de Marseille]

France 1863 – 1935

Entry to the Port of Marseille
[L'entrée du port de Marseille]
oil on canvas
canvas 116.5 (h) x 162.5 (w) cm
Musée Cantini, Marseille, on long-term loan to the from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1912
Photograph: Jean Bernard

The Neo-Impressionist’s technique aims … at obtaining a maximum of colour and light. Is this aim not clearly outlined by the beautiful cry of Eugène Delacroix: The enemy of all painting is grey!1

So stated Signac in his seminal treatise on Neo-Impressionism, D’Eugène Delacroix à Neo-Impressionisme.2 Here we see a typical example of how this notion was realised: individual brushstrokes in vivid pinks and blues are interspersed with flecks of green, purple and orange to capture the play of light on the waters of the harbour, and the passage of clouds across the sky. Signac’s friend Cross well described the dazzling effect of the ‘play of hues’ in Signac’s paintings as being ‘ravishing as happy combinations of gems’.3

While earlier in his career Signac had painted gritty urban landscapes, port scenes and seascapes like this one make up much of his later oeuvre. In his early work he was a devoted follower of Seurat’s Pointillism, in which images are constructed using dots of pure colour and identical size. This rendering of Marseille’s port is characteristic of Signac’s later adaptation of the style: the precise spheres of colour used in his early paintings are replaced with small rectangular slabs, tessellated to give a mosaic effect.

A keen sailor, Signac travelled extensively in his native France and across Europe, painting ports from St-Tropez to Istanbul. It is interesting that, given his anarchist sympathies, many of these paintings recall the work of the Romantic maritime painter J.M.W. Turner and offer idealised versions of the bustling industrial ports. Here yachts and traditional barques are set against a soft city skyline and the whole work is imbued with a rose-golden glow. This is in stark contrast to the reality of Marseille’s busy seaport in the years leading toWorld War I, when hundreds of ships filled the harbour against the backdrop of a rapidly expanding industrialised city.

The shift to idyllic subject matter exemplified by this work could be read as alluding to the anarchist dream of a future utopian society, but perhaps the painting is better understood as affirming Signac’s belief in the revolutionary power of the Neo-Impressionist technique. For him, the technique represented a denial of tradition and a refutation of bourgeois taste that struck ‘a solid pick blow to the old social edifice, which, worm-eaten, cracks and crumbles like some abandoned cathedral’.4

Emilie Owens

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Paul Signac, ‘D’Eugène Delacroix a Neo-Impressionisme’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in theory 1815–1900: an anthology of changing ideas, Oxford: Blackwell 1998, p. 979.
  2. Paul Signac recorded the theory behind Seurat’s system of colour in this text, first published in Paris in 1899.
  3. Letter from Cross to van Rysselberghe, 1905, quoted in Marina Gerretti-Bocquillon, Anne Distel, John Leighton et al., Signac, 1863–1935, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2001, p. 20.
  4. Paul Signac, ‘Impressionists and revolutionaries’, in Harrison and Wood, p. 797.