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: Further Remarks on Seurat’s Port-en-Bessin


William I. Homer

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Since the publication of the Summer, 1957, issue of the Bulletin,1 which was devoted to a discussion of Seurat's Port-en-Bessin, some interesting new material relating to the painting has come to light. The purpose of this additional note is to supplement the earlier study pictorially and factually.Of considerable interest is a comparison of the painting with a recent photograph, previously unpublished, showing the site as it exists today.2 Although a few of the buildings represented by Seurat were damaged or destroyed during World War II, the appearance of the waterfront has not changed much since 1888, the year he painted there. When the photograph and the painting are examined side by side, we find that Seurat took certain liberties in representing his subject-even to the point of distorting and rearranging what he saw in nature. The reasons for these artistic changes on Seurat's part are manifold, but the chief one can be traced to his desire to organize the two-dimensional surface of the canvas as a pattern in its own right. Many progressive French artists of the 1880s similarly tried to avoid forcing the illusion of depth in their paintings. Instead, they sought to replace the conception of the picture as a window open to nature with a new, almost decorative flatness in their canvases.As our earlier study of Port-en-Bessin, indicated, Seurat wished to simplify the myriad sensations he received from nature. With the present comparison in mind, one can understand how this simplification was fostered by his desire to harmonize a firm two-dimensional design with the traditional devices for obtaining spatial recession. By repeating linear directions and shapes throughout the picture, without regard for specific positions in depth, Seurat successfully tightened the structure of his surface design. We may notice, for example, the way in which the random line of the cliffs in the photograph has been regularized so that its rhythm becomes more architectonic and closer in character to the rooftops at the left of the painting. And, where the cliffs, as seen in nature, are rambling and have no dominant direction, Seurat finds a clear geometric shape underlying each curve and angle. The strong diagonals of the quays in the foreground, too, are echoed in subsequent diagonals that fall back into space; here Seurat has accentuated the similarities, not the differences, in the lines he perceives. In the painting, unlike the photograph, those lines and areas that convey too forcefully the sense of depth have been eliminated by the artist. In doing this he achieved a unity of surface as well as an over-all simplicity, which is characteristic of the work of those painters who feel that the expressive impact of a picture depends largely in what is left out-not on the accumulation of an infinite number of details.Actually, it was Seurat's friend, Paul Signac, who first "discovered" Port-en-Bessin. As a young art student of 18, he went there in what must have been his first painting trip to the coast.3 During the three summers he spent at Port-en-Bessin, from 1882 to 1884, Signac worked in the Impressionist manner. At this time, according to his own statement,4 he admired Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Guillaumin. However, a comparison of his Le Chalutier, painted at Port-en-Bessin in 1882, with Seurat's view of the same port executed six years later illustrates the serious cleavage that developed between the Impressionist and the Neo-Impressionist viewpoints. In Signac's painting, we feel that he was concerned chiefly with the quality of light as it caresses the fluctuating surfaces of the sailboat, water, and buildings in the distance. His rapid brushwork too, recorded his spontaneous response to a segment of the world seen at one unique moment in time.How Signac's approach differs from Seurat's may be demonstrated by a few observations on the latter's method. Rather than mixing his strokes instinctively, Seurat covered his canvas with a multitude of colored dots, using a technique that permitted him to progress slowly and methodically toward his goals. When Signac painted at Port-en-Bessin, he tried to capture the illumination of the scene with the brilliant pigments of the Impressionist palette; by 1888, on the other hand, Seurat had come to cherish the more subtle nuances of light that could be obtained by the pointillist method. However, this characteristic dotted style evolved not only from Seurat's research between 1884 and 1888, but owed something to the energetic collaboration of Signac during these years. The two artists met in 1884 and became fast friends. Thus Signac really played a dual role "behind the scenes" in the Institute's Port-en-Bessin: he directed Seurat's attention to this unspoiled fishing village and collaborated with him in the formation of the Neo-Impressionist style.Finally, it may interest some readers to follow the movements of the painting after it left Seurat's studio.5 It was exhibited twice in 1889: in Brussels at La Société des XX, (where he had shown La Grande Jatte, in 1887) and, later that year, at the fifth Salon des Artistes-Indépendents, in Paris. The picture was displayed once more under the auspices of the latter group in 1892. Its next possible appearance occurred in Rotterdam in 1934-1935 and again in 1936-1937. Finally passing from the van Deventer collection, where it had remained from 1913 to 1938, Port-en-Bessin, was sold in London to Sir Chester Beatty, who was the last private owner before its purchase by the Institute.The fate of Port-en-Bessin, was like that of many distinguished paintings of the late nineteenth century. At the time of their execution, only a handful of people could be persuaded to buy them. (Seurat, incidentally, sold only two paintings during his lifetime.) However, the public gradually abandoned some of its prejudice toward these new masters, and museums, too, began to acquire their works. But it is to the pioneer collectors and art dealers who sponsored the efforts of this misunderstood generation that we owe a great debt of gratitude because they preserved many of the irreplaceable monuments of modern painting that are now passing with increasing rapidity into public galleries.Endnotes
  1. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, Vol. XLVI, No. 2 (Summer, 1957), pp. 17-41.
  2. The writer wishes to thank Mr. Henri Dorra for making this photograph available for publication in the Bulletin. It is reproduced here with his permission.
  3. The information about Signac at Port-en-Bessin was made available through the kindness of the artist's daughter, Mme. Ginette Cachin-Signac.
  4. Paul Signac, D'Eugène Delacroix au Néoimpressionisme, Paris, 1939, p. 82.
  5. The information in this paragraph was supplied by Mr. John Rewald and Mr. Henri Dorra, co-authors of the recently published catalogue of Seurat's paintings.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891)
    Port-en-Bessin, 1888
    Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 32 1/2"
    William H. Dunwoody Fund, 1955
  2. Port-en-Bessin, Photograph by Henri Dorra
  3. Map of the French Coast with arrow showing Port-en-Bessin
  4. Paul Signac (French, 1863-1935)
    Le Chalutier, 1882, Oil on canvas
    Photograph courtesy of Mme. Ginette Cachin-Signac (present location unknown)
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Source: William I. Homer, "Further Remarks on Seurat's Port-en-Bessin," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 48, no. 4 (October-December, 1959): 12-15.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009