Paul Signac

Paul Signac

Paul Signac was a French painter, graphic artist, theoretician of art, one of the outstanding followers of Pointillism movement at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th cent. He was the one who had forestalled Fauvism with its concentration on features and expressive potential of coloring.

Early life

Paul Victor Jules Signac was born on November 11, 1863 in Paris. His father was an owner of a tannery shop, where he sold things from leather, saddles and harness. The family was rather wealthy. Paul attended College Rollin, situated on boulevard de Clichy. He was the only child in the family, so, despite the fact his mother wanted the son to become an architect, his decision to dedicate himself to painting met little opposition.

The future artist studied for several months in the studio of Jean-Baptiste Bin, but his main teachers were impressionists. He visited their exhibitions and even tried to copy some of their pieces. They say that when Signac was 16-years-old, he came to see the fourths impressionistic show and started making copy of Degas’ picture. The debutant of that exhibition Paul Gauguin immediately approached him and pronouncedly warned that copying was forbidden there. Signac was forced to leave.

Paul dreamed of meeting Claude Monet and even wrote him a letter asking for an appointment. Claude always avoided wasting his time but agreed to meet with the persistent young man. Yet he received Signac coldly, so Paul had to return to his pictures searching for answers on the questions he was concerned with. The painter later confessed: “A Monet has always moved me. I have always drawn a lesson from it, and in days of discouragement and doubt a Monet for me was always a friend and a guide”. Claude Monet was the leader of Impressionism and Camille Pissarro was his soul. Signac acquainted with him in the studio of his friend Armand Guillaumin.

Paul Signac’s true passion (like the passion of many other Parisians) was watersport, which became popular in 1880s. They claim the master had changed 32 boats during his life. He was really austere with himself and his friends, couldn’t stand falsity and quickly lost temper in discussions, when was sure in his rightfulness.

Origin of Pointillistic principles

One of the most significant watermarks in Signac’s biography was meeting with Georges Seurat. It happened in 1884, when Seurat was 24 and Signac – 20.

It was year, when Parisian walls were covered with posters “Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (Rue des Tuileries)”. Odilon Redon, Seraut, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, Signac and other artists decided to establish the “Société des Artistes Indépendants”, whose statute had been written by Dubois-Pillet (it was his painting “Dead Child” so vividly described in Emile Zola’s “L’œuvre”). The “Independents” gave possibility to display works to young artists; they weren’t only preoccupied with art-practice itself, but also developed theory of art. For instance, Seurat and Signac were interested both in books and articles of art critics and reports of physics.

He learn about theory of colors and used the chance to get familiar with the author of the treaty “De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés” (1839) by Eugene Chevreul.

Seurat was a rather reserved person, so Signac, who believed he was a co-author of new ideas originated by deep immerse into work on Chemistry and Physics, made himself responsible for promoting of a new color theory. If impressionists tried to capture spontaneous visual impressions, Seurat and Signac weren’t interested in depicting fleeting moments. They singled out three main colors – blue, red and yellow and three complementary one – violet, green and orange. The painters noticed that some combinations of those hues are more intense, while others – more pale and believed the task of artists was to learn peculiarities of those combinations and use them. Paul and Georges preferred applying paint with separate brushstrokes, which would optically mix in viewer’s eyes.

The movement founded by Signac and Seurat had several names: “Divisionists”, “Pointillists” and even Neoimpressionists. Critic Felix Feneon was the one, who supported them. Paul Signac and Vincent van Gogh were close friends. In 1890 he wanted to challenge to a duel a Belgian master Henri de Groux, who had asserted he wouldn’t display his works together with “ignoramus and a charlatan” Van Gogh.

Social life

Every Monday Signac organized tea-parties to which renown poets and writers were invited. After the death of Seurat in 1891, the master became the leader of Pointillism. Dubois-Pillet had died by that time and Pissarro had distanced from the new movement.

In 1890 the painter was gradually involved into political struggle. Besides, he actively participated in the artistic life of Paris, organizing shows of the “Independents”, started watching after development of the “Nabis” group, who claimed symbol to be the major mean of expression in art, and fauvists, who drew his attention with brightness of palette.

In 1904 Signac worked during the whole some together with Matisse in Saint-Tropez on the Mediterranean coast. Therefrom Paul sailed to France, Greece and other countries. And it was Saint-Tropez, where he started writing books. In 1899 the author published his first monograph “From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism”.

Signac was striken by the news about outbreak of World War I. In 1919, together with Anatole France, Henri Barbusse and other significant personalities, he signed a petition of French art workers in defense of Russia. Paul partnered with many progressive social associations and newspapers, like “Mond”, “Commune” and shared some revolutionistic ideas. In 1934 Signac, who was over 70-years-old, participated in the Antifascist committee.

Specific of differnet genres in Signac’s legacy

Painting his native city, since 1880s the master preferred depicting its suburbs instead of Parisian center (“L’Echafaudage du Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre”, 1882, “ La Route de Gennevilliers: faubourg de Paris ”, 1883, etc.). Unlike Seurat’s landscapes of that period, Signac’s pictures of Southern France didn’t hace that grandiose cosmism typical for Georges’ pieces: the artist chose not, a bird’s-eye view on the scenery, but a view from a boat.

In his still lifes Paul Signac accurately built compositions and accentuated facture of objects. In 1885 – 1887 he switched to portraits and created his well-known “Les modistes”, “Le Petit déjeuner”, and portrait of Felix Feneon (1890) and “Femme se coiffant” (1892) a little bit later. All of them are bright samples of pointillistic principles. When after seeing “Femmes au puits” (1892) at the ninth Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1893, Gauguin wrote: “A well by the seashore: some Parisian figures in gaily striped costumes, thirsty with ambition, doubtless seeking in this dry well the water that will slake their thirst. The whole thing confetti”.

“In the times of Harmony”

Art Nouveau influence on the painter’s work of 1890s, when Signac was attracted by the possibility of graphical stylization, decorativeness and aestheticism of the style. However, he always remained self-sufficient in his visual experiments. One of Paul Signac’s most famous pieces was “Au temps d’harmonie” (1893 – 1895). It has a subtitle – “L’âge d’or n’est pas dans le passé, il est dans l’avenir” (The Golden Age Is Not in the Past, It Is in the Future). After exhibiting it at the Salon de la Libre Esthétique (former “Les XX” group) the master felt critics had soften in their appraisals of his art. Though Signac paid more attention to landscape, that time he set off creating his first composition on social topic and represented scene from future.

In his studio the painter had no possibility to look at the canvas from needed distance. And his was shocked after transporting it to the exhibition place. Signac took it back and tried to balance color areas between each other, until the image became as luminiferous, as his small-scale works.

Last years

In 1900s Paul Signac rendered numerous landscapes after his journeys to England, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey. He tried to transmit the specific of each area, its spirit: if his Venetian landscapes art historians call “decorative fantasies”, the Dutch ones are glorify difficult laboring life.

Not long before his death, he travelled across Corsica and wanted two return their in autumn. But Signac died on August 15, 1935.

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