France 1859 – 1891
Port-en-Bessin at high tide
[Port-en-Bessin, avant-port, marée haute] 1888
oil on canvas
canvas 67.0 (h) x 82.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase with funds from an anonymous Canadian gift 1952
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Seurat ‘washed his eyes’ during his regular summer trips to the Normandy coast. In 1888 he travelled to the fishing village of Port-en-Bessin. Whereas in previous years he had trekked long distances to find suitable motifs to refresh his creative vision, at Port-en-Bessin he made an ‘inventory’ of the harbour, plotting it from different angles.1 This painting is, in effect, the centre of Seurat’s inventory, looking east, down into the port. Two other versions look west up to the cliffs, and out from the coast, while three others feature locations within the harbour itself.2 These are some of Seurat’s most marvellously constructed works, in which he delights in the asymmetrical, enclosed and interlocking forms of the sails, quays, cliffs and surrounding vegetation.
In Port-en-Bessin at high tide, the main part of the canvas is the sea—fringed by the cliffs and coastal grasses—and sky. The straight lines of the horizon, the eastern arm of the breakwater and the quay are interrupted by masts with their billowing sails, and the flag poles in the port. The curves of the sails are mimicked by the untidy stalks of grass along the edge of the cliff. Angular buildings, rendered in mottled white and greyish lavender, contrast with the undulating diagonals of the geological features. A wisp of smoke snakes up from a chimney at the extreme right; mirrored by the road which winds up the far cliff, a frequent device in Seurat’s work. The subtle geometry and sparkling late morning light modulate the abandoned, melancholy impression of this place seemingly emptied of any human presence. There are echoes, too, of earlier compositions: the negative space of the harbour in this work, if we were to rotate the canvas, is the same shape as Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp 1885, about twenty kilometres further west along the coast, and the site of Seurat’s first summer campaign.3
From a distance, this painting is ostensibly naturalistic but on closer inspection it is encrusted with thousands of tiny painted dots organised in complementary pairs. Seurat creates this effect through a series of layered ‘scrims’ of paint; the water is a subtle combination of yellows, greens and blues on a white ground. For the grassy cliffs, Seurat has overlaid touches of blue, orange and pink on top of broader strokes of yellow-green to create the dominant tone. The greater range of hues in the foreground make us more conscious of the separate colours.4 Seurat uses red and blue to build the painted border of the painting, and then continues the dots onto the actual picture frame, breaking down the traditional demarcation between the painting and the wall on which it is displayed.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- John Russell, Seurat, London: Thames and Hudson 1991, p. 222.
- Port-en-Bessin, the semaphore and the cliffs 1888, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Port-en-Bessin: entrance to the outer harbour 1888, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Port-en-Bessin: the outer harbour (low tide) 1888, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis; Port-en-Bessin, the bridge and the quays 1888, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis; Sunday, Port-en-Bessin 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.
- The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, holds a study for Le Bec du Hoc 1885; the final painting is in the Tate Collection, London.
- Robert L. Herbert, Seurat: drawings and paintings, New Haven: Yale University Press 2001, p. 129.