The Tugboat, Canal in Samois
Oil on canvas
82 x 66 cm
Gift of Sara Mayer, Tel Aviv, in memory of her husband, Moshe Mayer
© ADAGP, Paris, 2005
Accession number: B94.0600
Born to well-to-do Parisian merchants, Signac had the good fortune to be financially independent throughout his lifetime. From 1882 onward he began painting full-time. As he had virtually no formal training, his early work derived from his study of Impressionism, and his personal acquaintance with a number of the movement’s major protagonists. A meeting with Georges Seurat in 1884 resulted in his acceptance of that artist’s Neo-Impressionist (Pointillist) color theories and methods. Two years later, when he participated in the final Impressionist group exhibition, Signac’s work was already shown with those of the Neo-Impressionist group.
Following Seurat’s death in 1891, Signac became the group’s chief publicist and proselytizer. In his writings he clearly formulated the Neo-Impressionist theories of the disciplined order of the brushstroke, the use of scientific color theory, and the return to the more formal compositional rules of the past. An anarchist and pacifist, Signac saw in the “scientific” theories of Neo-Impressionism a reflection of his faith in technology and human progress.
In 1892, Signac began to go regularly to Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean. From that time onward a slow evolution in his style is discernible. His color tones become stronger, and gradually his brushstrokes broaden, each stroke being slightly separated from the others by a small area of primed canvas that shows through from beneath. It is during this period that he ceases to paint directly outdoors, preferring to do pencil sketches and watercolors on site and finished paintings in his studio. At the same time his style was becoming increasingly decorative and remote from immediate reality.
The Tugboat, Canal at Samois, is painted in mosaic-like brushstrokes of pure color. The white around each stroke gives the painting its luminosity, while the sharp contrast of juxtaposed colors (blue-yellow, violet-orange, red-green) animates the surface. These contrasts are countered by unifying color harmonies (blue-green, yellow-orange, red-violet), reminding us that Signac is a colorist of the highest order.
Despite the vibrating surface produced by the individual dabs of color, the overall impression is that of calm and balance. This is achieved through the classicistic symmetry of the composition, which is divided vertically and horizontally in the precise 5:8 proportions of the Golden Section. This geometry is softened, however, by the repeated, rhythmic curves of the smoke, mountains, trees, and shoreline, which add a decorative elegance.
A veteran sailor, Signac frequently includes in his paintings images of seascapes, seaports, and scenes along rivers, particularly the Seine. Samois, where The Tugboat was painted, is a small town located between the Seine River and the Forest of Fontainebleau, some fifty kilometers from Paris. The painting reflects the artist’s fondness for the contemporary smoke-spewing steamboats. He enjoyed combining this aspect of industrial modernism with the more familiar elements of his work: water, sky, and the play of light.