Paul SIGNAC Martigues Probably April 1929. Graphite and watercolour. H.27,7xL.43,5 cm Little Rock, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation. Gift of James T.Dyke 1999.065.089 LH© DR

From 16/10/2010 to 23/01/2011 – Musee Malraux – Le Havre

In 1929, at the age of 65, Signac knew recognition and fame. He went on to carry out a project that had been on his mind and in his heart for a long time, to paint in watercolors 100 ports in France. This series named the Ports de France, done from 1929 to 1931, would become the crowning of his career as a watercolor artist. The musée Malraux presents all the works of this series known to date, that is nearly 90 watercolors, set in perspective with a selection of paintings by the artist that show his deep attachment to the sea world and to ports, as well as a few historic works Signac was inspired by for his series

Throughout his life Paul Signac (Paris 1863-Paris 1935) painted, either in oil or watercolors, the sea and river ports, traditional or industrial, in France and abroad. Shortly before 1929, he met Gaston Lévy, a business man with a vivid imagination and a comfortable fortune, the owner of the Monoprix department stores and an ardent collector. He would become Signac’s patron and straightaway a privileged relationship started to grow between the two men. The artist exposed his project to his new friend as of December 1928. «For some time now I have been dreaming of painting a major series of watercolors on French ports . I have identified 40 ports on the North Sea, 40 on the Ocean; 20 on the Mediterranean. In total, one hundred». He suggests that Lévy sponsor this operation, and the precision of his letter proves it was far from being improvised. «If this project were to meet your approval, I would order a sedan C4 Citroën, I would hire a chauffeur and I would leave in February to Mediterranean ports. In April I would go up to the Ocean ports to finish with the Northern ports in the summer. I think it will take me 5 to 6 months of work, a bit crazy! I will do two watercolors in each port, one for you and the other for me, different ones of course, and you will choose the one you prefer of the two. We will decide together on the price and the format. Art dealers would have nothing to do with this!»

Gaston Lévy understood the interest of this project and immediately accepted to finance it. Signac undertook his tour in March 1929 and finished his vast project in 1931. The watercolors were brought together in beautiful leather albums, and Ports de France was Signac’s ultimate pride. This exceptional ensemble is the proof of the vitality of an artist well past the age of sixty, and demonstrates his happiness in being able to devote himself heart and soul to his favorite subjects, ports, boats and the sea. These works are as successfully completed as they are varied, and are the brilliant proof of an ever-renewed pleasure in observing the infinite diversity of the skies, the ships and rigs, and port architectures. These works are as precise as they are concise and follow one another without any monotony. This surprising report was lovingly kept from the light and from being seen before being scattered in 1995. To date it had never been exhibited nor published

The exhibition brings together for the first time the greatest number of watercolors of the series Ports de France. All the pieces come from major private and public collections, in particular the one built up by James T. Dyke, now given to the museum of Little Rock in Arkansas. They are known to be approximately 90, and will be confronted to some of the great models that inspired Signac and which he greatly admired, such as Le Lorrain, Joseph Vernet, Corot, Jongkind, Boudin… Works from the Impressionist period, the neo-impressionist and even the one that opened when he settled in Saint-Tropez in 1892, will come teach or remind the viewer the deep attachment which Signac, himself a sailor, had for the world of ports. While Signac has been the object these last few years of great exhibitions of international stature (Paris, Grand Palais; Musée de Grenoble) no exhibition has ever been dedicated to this final masterpiece of Paul Signac’s graphic art.

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