Paul Signac


1863 – 1935

Le Port d'Antibes, 1918, oil on canvas, 60x73 cm

French painter, printmaker and writer. He came from a well-to-do family of shopkeepers. A visit to the exhibition of Claude Monet’s works organized by Georges Charpentier at the offices of La Vie moderne in 1880 decided him on an artistic career and encouraged him to try painting out of doors. His early works, landscapes or still-lifes of 1882–1883, show an Impressionist influence, particularly that of Monet and Alfred Sisley. In 1883 Signac took courses given by the Prix de Rome winner Jean-Baptiste Bin, but they had little effect on his style. Such suburban Paris landscapes as The Gennevilliers Road (1883; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay) place his works in a world of modern images comparable to those of Jean François Rafaëlli in which factory chimneys, hoardings and etiolated trees abound. Already a friend of Henri Rivière, Signac soon met Armand Guillaumin, who provided important encouragement. In 1884 he was a founder-member of the Salon des Indépendants, where he met Georges Seurat who that year was exhibiting Bathers at Asnières (1884; London, N.G.). In this painting Seurat had already begun to apply principles of Divisionism (although not yet the dot-like brushstroke), while Signac was still practising an orthodox form of Impressionism.

Seurat’s theory of colour division seduced Signac by its rigour, which was in opposition to the instinctive approach of the Impressionists. The two men pooled their research. Signac persuaded Seurat to remove earth pigments from his palette, and by 1885 Seurat had encouraged Signac to adopt a Divisionist handling of paint (e.g. The Seine at Asnières, 1885; artist’s col., see Cachin, p. 16). By 1886 they were both using the pointillist brushstroke. In emulation of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–6; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), Signac painted a series of three major views of contemporary interiors with figures posed in stiff profile (e.g. The Dining-room, 1886–7; Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Sticht.). Associated with anarchist circles and the Revue indépendante, Signac was close to Félix Fénéon, who devoted several articles to him. Camille Pissarro was another friend, who adopted the Neo-Impressionist technique from 1886 in response to seeing Seurat’s and Signac’s work. In 1886–7 Signac met van Gogh, whom he saw again when he visited Arles in 1889. While remaining faithful to his own style of brushstroke and a subjective conception of colour, van Gogh was influenced by Signac’s version of the Divisionist technique as can be seen in such paintings as The Bridge at Asnières (1887; Houston, TX, Menil Col.).

From the mid-1880s Signac exhibited regularly. Apart from the Salon des Indépendants, in which he figured every year, he showed at the last Impressionist Exhibition (1886) at the invitation of Pissarro, from 1888 at Les XX in Brussels, and later at Libre Esthétique. From 1892 he exhibited watercolours, e.g. Trois notations à l’aquarelle (exh. Paris, Salons Hôtel Brébant, Exposition des peintres néo-impressionnistes, 1892–3). However, it was only in 1902 that he had his first one-man exhibition, in Siegfried Bing’s gallery in Paris. Like other members of the Neo-Impressionist group (see Neo-impressionism), Signac received little public acclaim for the first 20 years of his career. Fénéon, Arsène Alexandre and Antoine de la Rochefoucauld were the only critics who supported his work consistently. Signac patiently developed a style whose essential principles had been laid down at the outset of his career. Within the dictates of the Neo-Impressionist method his art evolved from the outdoor painting of his early work towards an increasingly subjective approach. In 1891 he began introducing indications of musical tempos to the titles of his works (e.g. Presto (finale), 1891; London, priv. col., see 1979–80 exh. cat., p. 139), thereby underlining his investigations into abstract visual rhythms at a time when Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences was very much in fashion. By 1892, when he moved from Paris to St Tropez, direct observation of nature was occupying a less important place in his work: he was painting almost entirely in his studio from sketches and watercolours made in front of the motif, mostly in the course of his travels. A keen sailor, he went on a number of cruises, which took him to various ports in France and also to Italy, Holland and Constantinople.

The formal evolution of Signac’s painting followed two directions. Never an abstract painter, he nonetheless elaborated an aesthetic in which the beauty of pure colour was an end in itself: ‘[colour] division is more a philosophy than a system’, he wrote. The bold juxtaposition of bright colours (e.g. Women at the Well, 1892; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay) gave way in 1905 to more muted harmonies where he applied the principles of interaction between coloured masses with greater freedom (e.g. Paris, Ile de la Cité, 1912; Essen, Mus. Flkwang). On the other hand, his brushstroke, which until 1890 was no more than a little dot designed to produce ‘optical mixture’ at a distance, grew larger and then became a square or a rectangle whose size was adapted to suit that of the picture, which was conceived as a form of mosaic (Venice, 1905; Toledo, OH, Mus. A.). In 1927 he used the opportunity of writing a work on Johann Barthold Jongkind to produce a remarkable treatise on watercolour.

If Seurat was the founder of Divisionism, Signac deserves credit for making its principles known. A friend of the chemist and colour theorist Charles Henry, he designed the illustrations for Henry’s Cercle chromatique et rapporteur esthétique (1888). In the background of his Portrait of Fénéon (1890; priv. col., see 1979–80 exh. cat., p. 211), with its spiralling forms of vividly contrasting colour inspired by a Japanese print, he applied Henry’s theories concerning the emotional effect of colour and linear direction. Signac proved his ability as a theorist in his important work, D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme (1899), in which he defended the Neo-Impressionist aesthetic just as Fénéon was abandoning his activity as a critic. Like Fénéon, Signac sought to place Neo-Impressionism in a historical context, although his dogmatism and his desire for clarity gave his work the force of a manifesto. The book was one of the key sources of the renewed interest in Divisionism between 1900 and 1910; it was widely read by artists, not only in France, but also in Germany (where it was translated in 1903), and in Italy where the Futurists took up the Divisionist technique. The Fauves, and especially Matisse, who in 1904 was working with Signac at St Tropez, found in it the sanction for a freedom of colour that they would accentuate even more, as would Robert Delaunay and František Kupka.

Source: Rodolphe Rapetti, From Grove Art Online, © 2009 Oxford University Press

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