Signac´s La Mer

Opus 218, Scherzo – «The sardine boat».


In his encyclopaedia «The Subject in Painting», Paul Signac writes about an imaginary composition that had he painted it, could well have belonged with his depictions of the Port of Concarneau…

«…. If he is sensitive to the play of harmony, he will soon perceive …. how the kind of symphonie create by boats with blue sails is completed by the arrival of the crew dressed in orange clothing. Nature will reveal to him the two fold law of the analogy of resemblance and the analogy of opposites …He will understand that an object in isolation does not exist in itself, and he will seek in nature those colours and forms that will allow him to sing the song he carries within him».

He conceived of the paintings as a sequence of related images, different movements of the same piece, like the shymphonie´s structure. Even the last painting  has agitated movement ,resemble the faster tempo associated with the last sonata´s part). Tempo mark  (indicate) a particular speed and also evoke moods: serious, graceful and so on.

In this sense, Louis de Lùtece (whose prose-poem «Les Symphonies: Pochades impressionnistes» is close in time and spirit to Signac`s La Mer) not only established analogies between color-music  and temporal conditions, but also matched the MOODS evoked by nature´s  «colored symphonies» to specific musical tempos:

«….. Each one of these marvelous symphonies has its dominant color lavished passionately upon it and blended with love … Its favorite note, which recurs, sings, captivates, charms, is never monotone although always the same, playing either a joyous allegro, or a sacred andante, or a playful scherzo, or a sonorous finale.» Lùtece extend his analogy   between nature and music a few lines later in his poem by comparing particular times  of the day to the tempos listed above: 

– Vivacious rhythms (SCHERZO) = SPRING DAWN
– Swift brightness (ALLEGRO) = SUNNY SUMMER DAY
– Passionate strains (FINALE) = WINTER SUNSET (bold colors)


Rhythm is another concept borrowed from music, in both music and paintings depends on REPETITION, particular combinations of lines and shapes may be replicated on a larger or smaller scale or dispersed at various points around the canvas, the can even be reversed like a musical palindrome.

Our perception  of distance is also important in this connection, one intringuing feature of painting is that the distance separating similar forms can be «read» in two quite different ways. Also in music is possible make a translation between the space of time into the figures that make it, and the distance that suggest.

Contributing further to its musicality is the decorative formalism Signac employed in each of its paintings via the interplay of horizontal ripples and vertical or diagonal masts and sails; the rhythmic repetition of boats; and the plethora of simplified and flattened forms.Together, these decorative devices push La Mer´s imagery in the direction of abstraction, a condition comparable to music´s inherently non-mimetic and abstract qualities.

Opus 219, Larghetto – «Morning calm».


Opus 220, allegro maestoso – «Evening calm».

Opus 221, adagio – «Setting sun».

Opus 222, presto finale – «The return of the boats».

Signac´s interest in musicality as a model or standar for his art, especially his seascapes, was also the result of music´s abstract capacity for, in Baudelaire´s words, «translating ideas.» Music and musicality allowed Signac to do exactly that, by functioning as vehicles to express the «superior, sublimated reality» that Fénéon identified in 1887 as the consummate result of neo-impressionist representation.

Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, in an essay on Signac published in Le Coeur in 1893, wrote: «He (Signac) knows how to extend the limits of painting and, a true hierophant, fearlessly penetrates the most ideal provinces of music. If his canvases are admirable to the eyes, their symphonies are no less and stirring through the miracle of luminous waves transformed into sonorous, complete with grandeur and majesty.»

Ref: "The Music of Painting", Peter Vergo. ed PHAIDON

About drguez

studio DRGUEZ, works with space & color : ""

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