"It is impossible to find a more beautiful seascape drawing in the entire nineteenth century," Robert Herbert has declared of Régates (Deux bateaux à voiles); elsewhere, he describes it simply and emphatically as "breathtaking" (op. cit., 1958, p. 149; 1962, p. 156).
Dated to 1890, the year before Seurat's untimely death, the drawing is among his last independent works on paper and represents a culmination of his pioneering work as a draughtsman. As always, Seurat worked in deep, black Conté crayon on thick, textured Michallet paper, stroking the crayon across the sheet's ridges to create a range of shades from the palest gray to impenetrable darkness. Abandoning the contour line of his training, Seurat defined his shapes merely by contrasting areas of light and dark, depicting two sailboats (one of them silhouetted against a distant hill) skimming across the surface of the water toward a dock at the far right. The repeated vertical accents on the dock seem to halt the gentle forward motion of the boats, while the bent rudder-arm in the right foreground pulls our eye off to that side, countering the strong attraction of the two sails. Although the forms are all flat against the surface of the paper, with no receding diagonals, the changing value of the water results in a remarkable effect of depth, while the white of the paper flickers through the varied density of line, producing the impression of pervasive, radiant light.
Exactly where this luminous drawing was executed remains uncertain. Since 1885, Seurat had worked each summer on the Channel Coast, seeking "to wash the studio light from his eyes and transcribe most exactly the vivid outdoor clarity in all its nuances," as he told Emile Verhaeren (quoted in J. Rewald, Seurat, New York, 1990, p. 189). In 1890, he traveled to Gravelines, a flourishing port near the Belgian border, where he produced four major paintings, six oil sketches, and at least eight drawings, all depicting the canalized estuary that linked the town with the sea (de Hauke, nos. 201-210, 696-703). Although it is tempting to place the present drawing in this final seaside campaign, it is probably inaccurate to do so. First, Gravelines is situated on a broad coastal plain marked only by low dunes, with no undulating hills like we see here. Moreover, the eight drawings that can be securely linked to the Gravelines sojourn all appear to be preparatory sketches for the oil paintings. The present example, in contrast, is more similar in style and technique to Seurat's drawings from the first part of the decade, which were conceived as independent works. Herbert has explained, "Two Sailboats is closer to his earlier style, with its denser and more even tones; the parallel strokes on the water and the translucent greys identify it as a late drawing, however" (op. cit., 1962, p. 156).
The present image should probably be associated instead with a pair of elaborately worked drawings from 1890 that depict sailboats on the Seine in the western suburbs of Paris (de Hauke, nos. 705-706). In both of these, the sails are rendered in white, as here, and not black, as in the drawings from Gravelines. John Russell has written, "What turned out to be Seurat's last group of independent drawings had to do with that favorite motif of his: the white sail in the middle distance" (Seurat, London, 1965, p. 259). One of these drawings has been identified as a representation of a regatta at the celebrated bathing spot of La Grenouillère, just a few miles downstream from the site of Seurat's first two major exhibition pictures, Un Baignade, Asnières (de Hauke, no. 92) and Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte (de Hauke, no. 162). Although Herbert uses the neutral title Deux bateaux à voiles for the present drawing, de Hauke refers to it as Régates, suggesting that it too forms part of this milieu of bourgeois leisure (notably, a theme in which Seurat showed almost no interest during his coastal campaigns). But if the site and subject of the present drawing links it to Seurat's representations of the suburbs, the overall mood is wholly in keeping with that of his seascapes--silent, still, and utterly serene.
The first owner of the present drawing was the artist and theorist Maurice Denis, who also owned an oil sketch for Un Baignade, Asnières (de Hauke, no. 82). A decade Seurat's junior, Denis experimented with the older artist's pointillist touch in his work of 1890-1891, examples of which were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891 alongside Seurat's own seascapes from Gravelines. Although Denis would soon abandon this technique, he continued to hold Seurat in great esteem, writing in 1905, "Seurat was the first to try to replace a more or less fanciful improvisation, after nature, by a reflective working method. He sought to instill order, to create the new doctrine for which the whole world was waiting" (quoted in Maurice Denis, 1870-1943, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, 1994, p. 116).