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How Paul Signac discovered the finer points of art, in Les Andelys

Sometimes we look at an old postcard and are convinced it will be impossible to match.  Look at this charming view of the Seine sparkling in the sun as a tidy little steamboat chugs cheerfully south towards Paris.

What are the chances of finding the right spot on the hill to make the match? Pretty good if you happen to be visiting Château Gaillard.  It was here we found ourselves standing high up on one of the old look-out points across the Seine.  Down below we saw an oddly familiar view… a match!

Match! The suspension bridge at Les Andelys beneath Château Gaillard
Match! The suspension bridge at Les Andelys beneath Château Gaillard

The view north may be prettier, with bright white cliffs and the old roofs of Petit Andelys edging the river, but our postcard has a ‘pont suspendu’ a suspension bridge, and there is always something cheering about a nice bit of engineering.

A bit on bridges and an online suprise

Wiki told us this bridge was built in 1947 and is 150m long.  Nothing else.  The local tourist office went into more detail and talked about early boat crossings, cable ferries and in 1838 the first suspension bridge; ‘The wire bridge’ blown up during the Franco Prussian war in 1870, another bridge was blown up in WW2.  There’s more, but there always is with Normandy history.

Then we spotted online a couple of nice splodgy watercolour sketches of our pont suspendu and they revealed a fascinating few months long ago in Les Andelys that helped transform European art.

View from Château Gaillard to Petit Andelys and the Seine - stunning.
View from Château Gaillard to Petit Andelys and the Seine – stunning.

Life changing Les Andelys

It was during the hot summer of 1886 that a rather determined artist spent three life-changing months living in Les Andelys.

Born in Paris in 1863, indulged and intelligent, Paul Signac was an early fan of the new wave of painters forced to exhibit outside of the formal Paris Salon.  At 16 his enthusiasm for an Edgar Degas painting got him thrown out of the 1880 5th Impressionist exhibition by Paul Gaugin as he attempted a sketch copy. Outraged, Gaugin reportedly said as he ejected him ‘One does not copy here Sir!’ clearly a deep 19th century insult.

Where would art be if artist made sensible decisions?

Paul was not deterred and in true art hero style dropped out of a sensible course in architecture to study art. He blamed the sublime paintings of Claude Monet for his decision.

Paul was sociable, never short of an opinion and always a welcome addition to café conversations. Home in Paris was close to many artist studios around Montmartre and he made sure of introductions to his heroes including Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Impressionist styles continued to inform his own, but he was the next generation looking for new answers to visual questions.  Always the intellectual, Georges-Pierre Seurat’s colour theories fascinated him. They became great friends.

Climbing the creative ladder

By May 1886 Paul was no longer just a visitor but an exhibitor (much to Édouard Manet’s disgust) at what would later be called the ‘Last’ impressionist show alongside Seurat, Mary Cassatt, Gaugin and others.  Renoir, Monet and Sisley were conspicuous by their absence, change was happening fast.

Paul was beginning to receive recognition and by the time of his trip to Les Andelys in the summer of 1886 he was keen to develop his ideas away from earlier influences.

Early Paul Signac - 1883 Road to Gennevilliers
Early Paul Signac with a strong Impressionist influence – 1883 Road to Gennevilliers.

Well travelled paintings

Paul knew the beauty of the area from a visit to the home of Camille Pissarro at nearby Éragny-sur-Epte. In Normandy, close enough to Paris to pop back (Paul’s organisational skills kept plans for the group’s exhibitions on track) but away from distractions, he could give himself time to focus on colour ‘divisionism’ a barely tested technique now better known as ‘pointillism’.

First he sketched the area in watercolour.  Two of these pictures show an earlier version of our suspension bridge, complete with steamboat.

Paul Signac, Bridge at Les Andelys
Paul Signac, Bridge at Les Andelys

Both are on public display at the Hermitage St Petersburg, thanks to Russian soldiers who liberated them from the vaults of German industrialist Otto Krebs in 1945.

Suspension bridge at Les Andelys, Paul Signac 1886
Suspension bridge at Les Andelys, Paul Signac 1886

Paul then painted the views around Les Andelys and Chateau Gaillard in oils.  Not using soft Impressionist dash strokes but exploring Georges Seurat’s theories he applied intensely considered dots of pure colour, building to a smooth image of reality.

A keen sailor, his pictures return again and again to the river.  Paul used clusters different unmixed colour  to record the Seine’s constantly changing moods; the gun metal greys of a rainy Normandy day, the lightest blues of summer.

A new dawn for art

During three months at Les Andelys Paul Signac’s confidence in his developing style grew.  It is fascinating to see his art move away from spontaneous Impressionism to a measured scientific approach that understood optics in a way a hundred years later would be used by tv screens.

The mélange optique technique gave pointillist paintings a special glow, partly due to tiny white spaces between the dots.  As Paul said “the separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights“.  But there is also a formality and stillness in the pictures.  Paul had conquered the landscape in a very different way from his teenage heroes but in his quest for harmony had he eradicated an emotional connection for the viewer?

Paul completed ten oil paintings during his stay.  ‘La berge, Les Andelys’ is considered the most important for it’s unrelenting ‘divisionalist’ technique.

La berge, Les Andelys, Paul Signac 1886
La berge, Les Andelys, Paul Signac 1886

He exhibited some of his new, still wet canvasses in the August 1886 2nd Indépendants Paris show and a fan club was forming.

Mad chromatic flights

While traditionalists recoiled, anarchist and art critic Félix Fénéon declared his support for Paul: “the most recent ones are also the most luminous and complete.  The colours provoke each other to mad chromatic flights – they exult, shout! And the Seine flows on, and in its waters flow the sky and the vegetation along the riverside’.

Les Andelys, Cote d'Aval by Paul Signac 1886
Les Andelys, Cote d’Aval by Paul Signac 1886

Gustave Kahn poet and art critic commented “It is the glare of the midday sun which is caught in these landscapes; of all those that we know they are the most deeply infused with the joy of things and illustrated with the magical effects of light

The increasingly important Paul Signac by his friend Georges-Pierre Seurat 1890
The increasingly important Paul Signac by his friend Georges-Pierre Seurat 1890. When Seurat died in 1991 Paul led the Neo movement and worked hard to encourage the next generation – he was the first to buy a painting by Henri Matisse.

Félix describe the revolutionary art displayed by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and their friends as the New Impressionism ‘Néo-impressioniste’.  He attempted to crush any critisism saying ‘the truth is that the Neo Impressionist method calls for an exceptionally fine eye’. 

A new art movement was born and the art world would never be the same again.

Les Andelys, Château-Gaillard by Paul Signac 1921
Of course he went back! Les Andelys, Château-Gaillard by Paul Signac 1921

 

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