Paul Signac (November 11 1863—August 15, 1935) is the most accomplished Pointillist and an artistic innovator within the Neo-Impressionist movement.
Signac is said to have decided to become a painter after seeing an exhibition by Claude Monet. The latter’s luminous landscapes convinced him to abandon his own architecture studies in 1880 when he was only 18.
Signac had already travelled the Mediterannean coasts when, in 1884, he met both Monet and Georges Seurat, whose theory of colour would be so consequential to his art. In his travels, Signac had begun an independent development as a watercolour landscapist. All his life he kept up the habit of leaving Paris for the southern coast to paint and rest. In the 1890s, as an established artist, he took to sailing along the Dutch and French coasts and even went as far as Constantinople.
Though he is primarily studied as an excellent oil and watercolour painter of Impressionistic landscapes, Signac also created etchings, lithographs, and, like Surat, dotted drawings with the pen.
Georges Seurat became Paul Signac’s friend and, up until his passing in 1891 at the age of 32, a significant influence on the Impressionist circle and especially Signac. Seurat had introduced into art the theory of colour formulated by the chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. The realisation that complementary colours are juxtaposed enliven each other, and that the human eye tends to fuse different colours when seen from a distance, represented the theoretical groundwork for Seurat’s and Signac’s common pursuit, which came to be called Divisionism or Pointillism.
Société des Artistes Indépendants
In July 1884 Signac and Seurat were part of the small group of artists who established the Société des Artistes Indépendants to rival the official Salon and give space to those artists who only sought the opinion of the public. The Society had a generational influence on French art that the short-lived Impressionist Société never could have had. In 1908 Signac was elected president of the society.
At about the same time as he was helping to found the Société, Signac befriended the rising Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec. He even stood as van Gogh’s second in a duel with a critic. The duel was fortunately never fought.
Signac & Politics in 19th Century France
Paul Signac was politically involved. He sympathised with the leftist and anarchist circles of Paris to which the artists Camille Pissarro and Maximilien Luce also subscribed. His own brand of anarcho-communism was derived from his reading of contemporary French anarchists as well as Kropotkin. His 1893 painting In the Time of Harmony had to be renamed; its original title, In the Time of Anarchy, was unacceptable to the French authorities.
Although Signac was never impressed by Fauvism, he was a friend of Henri Matisse and became the first purchaser of his paintings. Indeed, Signac had a great influence on Matisse and most of the Neo-Impressionist generation. Matisse’s classic, Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904), was painted with the pointillistic technique taught by Signac. The painting was also inspired by Matisse’s residence in the town of St. Tropez on the French Riviera to which Signac introduced him as well as other artists. Later in life Signac purchased a house in St. Tropez.
Signac came from a family of modest means; his father had been a saddler. Yet by the 1890s he had become wealthy as an artist and began to act as a patron to many young talents. He also supported the Société des Artistes Indépendants and several lotteries. As a patron of the arts, he was enlisted to be a juror of the Prix Blumenthal, to reward aspiring artists of all kinds.
In 1899, Paul Signac published From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, an essay which, among other things, described and defined Pointillism.
Pointillism, Neo-Impressionism et al.
Paul Signac’s name is tightly bound with that of Pointillism, the artistic technique which he has the merit of having formulated and spearheaded. This manner of painting, like many other modernist phenomena of the late 19th century, was denominated by a critic who sought to deprecate it. It is a painting procedure that applies colour through minimal, square-like daubs on the canvas. As a potentially infinite sequence of marks, it is a laborious technique that achieves composition in a manner resembling that of the pixels on the computer screen.
The pointillistic painting relies on the swarm of square-ish dots being put together in the viewer’s mind. The concept recurs in the Impressionist catalogue, the Impressionists’ very brushstrokes being predicated on the idea that a multitude of quick touches can compose a whole (see e.g. the bouquet in Manet’s Olympia, which takes its true-to-life semblance when seen from some distance).
Pointillism is only distinguished from Divisionism for being a particular technical application of the Divisionist principle. The intellectual roots of both are in the scientific understanding of how the eye perceives colour first formulated by Chevreul, famous for his chromatic circle. Besides the compositive function of the eye (actually the brain) that Chevreul and Seurat brought to light, they also expounded, in their different ways, the vivifying effect that complementary colours have on each other when placed side by side. Chevreul called it the ‘law of simultaneous contrast’. Other colours instead have a mutually shading effect.
Seurat’s and Signac’s Pointillism, informed by the special degree of starkness which chromatic opposition bestows upon colour, relies therefore on a juxtaposition of coloured touches which are, however, separate. Essentially independent points, in fact.
Because of its scientific foundation and intellectual origin, the Pointillistic and Divisionistic art was occasionally defined as Scientific Impressionism. Seurat also employed the term ‘chromoluminarism’, which therefore constitutes a synonym for Divisionism. And as this pursuit of absolute colour for the purposes of an authentic expression of the world as perceived in a moment is a logical extension of the Impressionist project, it fits neatly into the category of Neo-Impressionism.
The pointillistic technique drew the attention of many contemporaries. It represented a phase in the careers of such artists as Camille Pissarro (e.g. Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather) and Vincent van Gogh (e.g. the famous Self Portrait of 1887).
Palais des Papes, Avignon (1900)
This glorious oil portrays the 14th-century papal palace in Avignon, Provence, with the tower of the nearby Notre-Dame-des-Doms Cathedral and, on the left, the three arches of the legendary bridge on the Rhône.
The painting may stand as a shining display of the pointillistic technique and the scientific understanding at its foundation. Horizontal slabs resembling a mosaic configure the broad surface of the river in the foreground. Vertical daubs instead shape the upward architectures in the middle, while the mass of the sky has been shaped with variously oriented groupings of touches. The colours follow the orientations of the objects that they materialise, everything being as if arranged by nature through little touches of sparkling colour.
The absence of borderlines has no effect on the strong impression of shape and volume that we experience all throughout. The shades help delineate the individual objects. They are achieved entirely through chromatic complements: blue on orange, green on red, violet on yellow.
In very original continuity with the Impressionist passion for water and reflection, Signac achieves a spectacular projection of the median and the upper register into the river below. His minimalistic patches of colour have accomplished reflection of astounding clarity.
Another one of Paul Signac’s colourful landscapes shows the port of Marseille. From behind a line of vessels, the bemused silhouette of the Notre Dame sanctuary is seen, imposing without menace over the city that calls it the Bonne Mère (‘good mother’).
The splendid multicolour surface of the water is fashioned out of horizontal rectangular daubs and lies in structural opposition to the vertical and oblique daubs of the boats and their sails. Once again, contrasting colours and the orientation of the pointillistic pieces obtain the effect of communicating precise shapes and perspectives to our eyes.