Important Art by Paul Signac
Signac's first major interior scene, The Milliners 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.
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."
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.