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Paul Signac

French Painter

Movements and Styles: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism

Born: November 11, 1863 - Paris, France

Died: August 15, 1935 - Paris, France

Paul Signac Timeline

Important Art by Paul Signac

The below artworks are the most important by Paul Signac - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The Milliner (1885)

The Milliner (1885)

Artwork description & Analysis: Signac's first major interior scene, The Milliner takes up a subject often represented by the Impressionists, including Degas and Cassatt. Further, his companion and later wife, Berthe Roblès was herself a milliner or hatmaker. Berthe posed for this work: she is the woman on the left, who bends to retrieve her scissors.

The work is set in the workshop of a milliner in the Sentier quarter in the center of Paris; the area is still the city's garment district. Originally, the title referred to specific roles of the figures in the work, as the "trimmer" and the "finisher." This is a testament to Signac's ongoing insistence on accuracy. He had acquired from Berthe a wealth of information about millinery and its particular terminology in the interest of producing a work that transcended mere general, visual documentation. Not unlike Impressionist painters like Degas in particular, who frequently represented working class women, Signac observed them and, in a sense elevated their status via his paintings.

This painting is clearly one from the early years of Neo-Impressionism and, in fact, was begun and then reworked in the developing Pointillist style. An ardent admirer of Delacroix, especially his use of expressive color, here Signac uses a virtually identical palette to that of Delacroix's Women of Algiers (1834). In both Delacroix's and Signac's paintings, a feminine world generally excluding of men is represented although Delacroix's women are enclosed in a harem, thus magnifying the sense of exclusion of the male viewer.

In this early work, the primarily self-taught Signac is still struggling with the articulation of fictive space. The workshop in which the milliners are confined is quite shallow, further emphasizing the sense of intimacy and companionship. Further, at this early stage in the development of Neo-Impressionism, the surface does not shimmer like it does in his work even a year later. According to accounts from Seurat as related to their mutual friend, the important art critic Félix Fénéon who actually coined the term "Neo-Impressionism" (and not in a pejorative way), Signac had been "won over," having modified the painting using the new technique at the same time that Seurat was finishing (reworking) La Grande Jatte.

Oil on canvas - E.G. Bührle Foundation, Zürich, Switzerland

Les Andelys, the Riverbank (1886)

Les Andelys, the Riverbank (1886)

Artwork description & Analysis: When Signac produced this work, the powerful influence of Impressionism still exerted considerable force in terms of his style. This painting, produced in Les Andelys in Upper Normandy on the banks of the Seine River, features the short brushstrokes and naturalistic palette of Impressionist works. Light, as it flickers in the air and the water, is given the attention customary to an Impressionist painting, particularly as seen in works by Monet and Pissarro, both of whom were mentors (almost indirect teachers) of the self-taught Signac.

During the summer of 1886, Signac lived in the small town of Les Andelys during an incredibly formative time in which he produced ten landscapes utilizing the Neo-Impressionist technique that he was refining in collaboration with Georges Seurat. He exhibited this work, a placid scene of small town life on the river that also flowed through the lively capital city of Paris, at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1887 along with three other paintings from the series. Important critics, including Gustave Kahn, Paul Alexis, and Félix Fénéon (who was to become his close friend), were impressed by Signac's work. Fénéon wrote: "Mr. Signac's verve accentuates the bright contrasts in his new canvases" Likewise, Kahn commented on the artist's expert depiction of light: "It is the glare of the midday sun which is caught in these landscapes; of all those that we know they are the most deeply infused with the joy of things and illustrated with the magical effects of light."

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay

The Dining Room (1886-87)

The Dining Room (1886-87)

Artwork description & Analysis: This drawing is one of many finished works in media besides oil on canvas that Signac produced throughout his very long career. The theme, a genre scene, a common choice for the Impressionists and generations of artists before them was one favored by Signac. Indeed, a painting of the same title he showed at the Salon des Indépendants in 1887 is quite similar to this one compositionally. This drawing, graphite and ink on paper, was created as an illustration for La Vie Moderne, the Parisian review of arts, literature, and other culture, in April 1887.

Here, Signac's meticulousness is apparent. Without the distraction of and interplay between colors, the way in which he structures forms is more obvious. Even in black and white, his ability to create an overall shimmering effect is evident. He began this drawing by putting down a light layer of graphite over which he added layers of dots carefully arranged to create variations in tone and to describe volumes.

A genre scene nonetheless, members of Signac's family posed for the figures represented here, including his grandfather and his mother as well as the family's housekeeper. None of them interact with one another; rather, they all seem to be going about their individual routines but doing so in a sort of quiet harmony.

Graphite and ink on Japan paper

Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890)

Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1890, Signac honored his friend, the influential art critic, dealer, collector, political activist, and curator, Félix Fénéon, with a portrait that remains one of the artist's most memorable and successful works in the Neo-Impressionist style. This unconventional portrait mirrors the subject's originality. The enigmatic Fénéon with his signature goatee, walking stick, and top hat, seems to set in motion a process of abstraction based on the ironically white flower he extends toward the whirlpool of brightly colored and patterned waves.

In the picture, both the flower and Fénéon remain static amidst a symphony of color; indeed, music is suggested by the word "Opus" in the title. As for the title, the MoMA suggests that the very long title for this work may be "a spoof on scientific terminology." That said, both Fénéon and Signac, as well as Seurat and other Neo-Impressionists, were fascinated by the work of Charles Henry, whose recent publication on optical theory included a color wheel. Signac's portrait of Fénéon is that color wheel set in motion.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Woman with a Parasol (1893)

Woman with a Parasol (1893)

Artwork description & Analysis: In Woman with a Parasol, Signac's companion stands serenely holding a bright-colored, orange umbrella and looking serenely to the right, beyond the picture plane. Her face reflects the light coming through the umbrella but the rest of her body and the composition as a whole are bathed in a subtle, purple-blue light. Robles, whom Signac had met at Le Chat Noir, a popular cabaret in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, was a distant cousin of Pissarro. Shortly after Signac produced this portrait, the two were married.

While the portraits of Fénéon and Berthe are both featured here and are exemplary of the range of the artist's mastery of color - particularly the optical mixing of Neo-Impressionism - in fact, portraits by Signac in the Neo-Impressionist style are somewhat unusual. This work constitutes the final portrait in a series the artist had made depicting family members and close friends.

The theme, of a woman sheltering beneath an umbrella, was also a common one for the Impressionist artists. Monet, whose work Signac had emulated early in his career, represented the subject repeatedly, for instance. Notably, the scene lacks depth; short of being flat, Signac's use of fields of seemingly solid colors (mixed, of course, optically as the dots are not of a uniform color) is reflective of his interest in Japanese prints, which had captivated other artists of the period. In Japanese prints, the articulation of space is similar to what Signac has done here. There is very little modeling to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. Instead, the emphasis is on color and the juxtaposition of simple, geometric forms that make up the figure and her umbrella. The addition of the floral pattern on the lower left seems a direct quote of Japanese decorative art.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay

Lady on the Terrace (1898)

Lady on the Terrace (1898)

Artwork description & Analysis: By 1898 when Signac produced this painting at his studio in Saint-Tropez, his approach to Neo-Impressionism had transformed from the experimental years of early 1880s. Consistently an artist who produced sometimes multiple preparatory drawings, including in color, prior to beginning a painting, Signac made a number of sketches for Lady on a Terrace.

Note that, in comparison to earlier works, the dots or points of his Neo-Impressionist style have grown larger although still careful, contained, and his palette is far less subdued. When looking at such works, it is evident from where Matisse drew inspiration for his early, so-called "pre-Fauve" works like Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904). Indeed, both in terms of palette and brushwork - the staccato application of dot-like forms - the work by Matisse very closely resembles Signac's.

Ever concerned with the combined effects of light and color, in this picture Signac designs the composition so that, says the National Gallery of Ireland, "receding bands of colour on the terrace, balustrade, planting, wall and sea, lead the eye from the shallow foreground space towards the distant mountains." The form of the female figure - the model was his wife, Berthe - is an emphatic vertical to the horizontal bands of the terrace and so forth. The towers and trees echo her verticality; there is a sense of serenity and balance in this expertly painted recap of a beautiful sunset on the French Riviera.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Ireland

The Pink Cloud, Antibes (1916)

The Pink Cloud, Antibes (1916)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1913, having already separated from his wife Berthe, Signac moved to a rented house in Antibes, where he lived with Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange and their daughter, Ginette, who was born in October of that same year. Berthe continued to live in the house in Saint-Tropez and she and Signac remained friends.

Signac painted some of his most vibrant pictures yet in Antibes. Painting just as frequently in watercolor as in oil, works from his later years were limited in subject matter largely to harbor scenes like this one, and to riverbanks. While he traveled a great deal and painted where he went, boats and other features in a painting of the Grand Canal in Venice look very much like those in paintings of Antibes, Constantinople, or Marseilles. All are radiant with color and reflect his far less strict adherence to the disciplined, organized approach of Neo-Impression which was, as one art historian, John Leighton, put it, "an art renunciation and restraint."

It seems that once Signac freed himself somewhat from what he eventually regarded as "the burden of description," he could produce optical effects of a different nature. Far less meticulously set down, the marks of pigment bright greens, blues, and pinks in the foreground and warm oranges, yellows, and reds beyond - create an effect of constant motion. Rather than merely shimmering as do his Neo-Impressionist works of earlier in his career, the later works have a kind of romantic, unrestrained liveliness more in tune with the paintings of the Fauves, the Symbolists, and the Nabis. Indeed, the painter Maurice Denis described Signac's later work, "with its combination of graded color and sentiment" as a kind of "reasoned romanticism," so distinct from "the scientific naturalism" of his work of the 1880s and 1890s.

Oil on canvas - Portland Museum of Art, Maine



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Paul Signac Photo

Related Art and Artists

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884-86)

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884-86)

Artist: Georges Seurat

Artwork description & Analysis: Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte was one of the stand-out works in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, in 1884, and after it was shown later that year, at the Sociéte des Artistes Indépendents, it encouraged critic Félix Fénéon to invent the name 'Neo-Impressionism.' The picture took Seurat two years to complete and he spent much of this time sketching in the park in preparation. It was to become the most famous picture of the 1880s. Once again, as in Bathers, the scale of the picture is equal to the dimensions and ambition of major Salon pictures. The site - again situated on the Seine in northwest Paris - is also close by. And Seurat's technique was similar, employing tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint that allow the viewer's eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colors blended on the canvas or pre-blended as a material pigment. The artist said that his ambition was to "make modern people in their essential traits move about as they do on [ancient Greek] friezes and place them on canvases organized by harmonies." But the classicism of the Bathers is gone from La Grand Jatte; instead the scene has a busy energy, and, as critics have often noted, some of the figures are depicted at discordant scales. It marked the beginning of a new primitivism in Seurat's work that was inspired in part by popular art.

Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago

Hay Harvest at Eragny (1887)
Artwork Images

Hay Harvest at Eragny (1887)

Artist: Camille Pissarro

Artwork description & Analysis: After 1884, Pissarro settled in Eragny, a rural village three miles south of Pontoise that became the subject of hundreds of his paintings. In the 1880s, Pissarro acted as both student and mentor to the Neo-Impressionists Signac and Seurat, and Hay Harvest at Eragny (1887) shows the results of their collaborative experiments in tonal value and painting style. Notably, though several of the Impressionists grew away from the movement in the 1880s and beyond, Pissarro is the only one to move into the Neo-Impressionist style seen here. More than ever before, his short, dashed brushstrokes evince something akin to Pointillism, weaving together landscape and figure. Recalling the cloud sketches of British landscapist John Constable (1821-22) and prefiguring Monet's series of views of Rouen Cathedral (1892-93), Pissarro studied the effects of seasonal conditions on color, depicting the varying seasons and creating multiple paintings of the same subject at different points throughout the year. His painting is carefully structured by the semicircle of hay bales and the sharp diagonals of the workers' tools, which coax the eye to meander into the luminous fields in the distant background of the composition. While the clothing is that of the French countryside, the figures and their peaceful surroundings achieve a certain universality via the lack of recognizable landmarks and the anonymity with which Pissarro paints the peasants' facial features.

Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum, Paris

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son (1875)

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son (1875)

Artist: Claude Monet

Artwork description & Analysis: One of Monet's most popular figure paintings, Lady with a Parasol showcases the women's accessory. The parasol itself makes many appearances in his work, primarily because when painting from real life outdoors, most women would use one to protect their skin and eyes. But the object also creates a contrast of light and shadows on the figure's face and clothing, indicating which direction the actual light is coming from. Quite uniquely, Monet paints into the light letting the model's features fade into the shadow. Most artists would avoid such a positioning of their subject as it is difficult to reproduce any detail - and even hard to simply look at your subject. But Monet is interested in light itself, and captures it in the scene in an unmatched way.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Luxe, Calme, et Volupte (1904-05)
Artwork Images

Luxe, Calme, et Volupte (1904-05)

Artist: Henri Matisse

Artwork description & Analysis: The title of this painting is taken from the refrain of Charles Baudelaire's poem, Invitation to a Voyage (1857), in which a man invites his lover to travel with him to paradise. The landscape is likely based on the view from Paul Signac's house in Saint-Tropez, where Matisse was vacationing. Most of the women are nude (in the manner of a traditional classical idyll), but one woman - thought to represent the painter's wife - wears contemporary dress. This is Matisse's only major painting in the Neo-Impressionist mode, and its technique was inspired by the Pointillism of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat. He differs from the approach of those painters, however, in the way in which he outlines figures to give them emphasis.

Oil on canvas - Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris

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