Paul Signac - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Paul Signac
Childhood and Education
Paul Signac was born into a comfortably middle-class family in Paris in the late-19th century during the critical last few decades when Modernism was developing. Significantly, the family relocated early in his life to the Montmartre area of the city, which was then a thriving artistic environment. The move had a tremendous impact on the young Signac's engagement with the visual arts and, more generally, with avant-garde culture at the time.
In his youth, Signac was drawn to the work of the Impressionists, then still very much on the cutting edge of artistic innovation. Encouraged by his very liberal parents, he attended exhibitions and absorbed the aesthetic of Impressionism. When he was 16, the admiring Signac attended the fifth Impressionist exhibition, where he was evidently deeply impressed by the work of Claude Monet. In the midst of sketching a work by Edgar Degas, he was confronted by a stern, unfriendly Paul Gauguin who declared, "One does not copy here, sir!" and summarily thrown out of the gallery.
That same, pivotal year of 1880, Signac's beloved father, Jules, succumbed to tuberculosis. Following his father's death, his mother, Héloise, decided to sell the family business and move to the new Parisian suburb of Asnières. Unhappy in the new location, Signac, despite being a good student, left school and returned to Montmartre, where he rented a room and divided his time between Asnières and Paris.
If the family's new home in Asnières was not the ideal setting for a budding young avant-garde artist, the area still provided ample subject matter for his work. There are numerous drawings and paintings made by Signac in the environs of Asnières, from the garden outside of the house to the bridges of the chic new Parisian suburb to the banks of the Seine River and the factory smokestacks of Clichy, then an industrial part of Paris. Many of Signac's paintings throughout his career feature boats and, indeed, in addition to art, boating was one of his earliest passions. His first boat was a canoe which the young man named "Manet Zola Wagner" after three of his idols, the famous avant-garde painter, writer, and composer.
When in Montmartre, Signac made the rounds socially, spending time at popular venues in the area such as the infamous cabaret, Le Chat Noir, which he began frequenting in 1881. He forged connections with artists, writers, musicians, and other cultural movers and shakers both via the Paris nightlife scene and more specialized channels such as avant-garde literary circles. For instance, he attended meetings of Naturalist writers held at the well-known Brasserie Gambrinus as well as at the homes of writers like Robert Caze. It was on such occasions that he forged friendships with critics Gustave Kahn and Félix Fénéon. Many of the writers and critics with whom he became acquainted during those early years later became ardent supporters of his work and style. Signac's engagement with avant-garde literary circles wasn't merely about associating with creative people as he was himself a writer with some talent - having penned in 1882 some satirical pieces on his idol, Zola's sometimes "ponderous" style.
Through the early 1880s, Signac continued visiting exhibitions and later credited a very specific show in June 1880, a display of works by Monet at the Parisian offices of the cultural journal, La Vie moderne, as having been a pivotal force in his decision to pursue a career in art - specifically as a painter. He admired not only Monet's Impressionist style, but also his very common themes - largely paintings made en plein air, in the great outdoors and featuring even the most banal of subjects.
Signac's earliest paintings date to the winter of 1881 to 1882; he was just 18 years old at the time. Aside from receiving some fairly rudimentary training in the studio of portraitist and history painter, Émile Bin, lessons that were free of charge, Signac was almost completely self-taught. He immersed himself in studying the paintings of leading Impressionists, including Monet, Manet, Caillebotte, and Degas.
One of his favorite sites for painting was a coastal town, Port-en-Bessin, of which Signac's depictions from 1883 reflect the influence of works he had seen in Monet's exhibition in a gallery on the Boulevard de la Madeleine that March. At that point, the young autodidact had fully adopted the Impressionist style. By 1884, Signac had advanced enough as a painter to enter some of his works into the first Salon des Artistes Indépendants sponsored by the newly formed organization of avant-garde artists of which he was a founding member along with Odilon Redon and Albert Dubois-Pillet. Also displaying work, including his painting, Bathers at Asnières (1884), was Georges Seurat. It was then that the two artists are said to have first met. Others whose work appeared at the groundbreaking exhibition were future Neo-Impressionists, Dubois-Pillet, Henri Edmond Cross, and Charles Angrand.
The connections made at the exhibition in 1884 proved pivotal. Further, the Société became a major force in exposing avant-garde artistic trends in its annual exhibitions for the following three decades. Unlike the official Salon, the Société's exhibitions awarded no prizes. Instead, its motto was "to allow the artists to present their works to public judgment with complete freedom."
Collaboration with Seurat and Others
That same year, 1884, Signac met Impressionist artist Armand Guillaumin; the following year, in 1885, he met Camille Pissarro. Both of those well-established Impressionist painters contributed advice and encouragement to Signac whereas the influence of Seurat, whose work he deeply admired, had not yet begun to be apparent in Signac's painting. However, Signac had begun meeting regularly with Seurat and both painters shared a fascination with the color theory of Michel-Eugène Chevreul as well as recent theories concerning optics, including in relation to art and aesthetics. Indeed, in 1885, Charles Henry's publication, "Introducing a Scientific Aesthetics," which "argued for an art based on scientific principles," was one of the most influential forces in inspiring the Neo-Impressionist technique.
In October of 1885, Seurat began refining the method of optical mixture, placing small dots of pure pigment side-by-side, directly onto the surface of the canvas, and then allowing the eye to mix them. The optimum viewpoint was at a slight distance from the picture. Seurat had already begun making his now famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86) in 1884, but after he and Signac established their Neo-Impressionist style, he reworked the large canvas extensively to utilize the new approach.
By December of 1885, Signac, Seurat, and other members of the group had solidified their unique style - Neo-Impressionism. Both Signac and Seurat were invited to display their work, all made in the new style, in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition, although there were objections to their inclusion by Eugene Manet, Édouard's brother and Berthe Morisot's husband, and by Degas. Despite that resistance, the two displayed their work to positive critical response. In the meantime, they had cemented not only a successful working relationship but a close friendship. According to Signac biographers, Russell T. Clement and Annick Houzé, he was "Seurat's closest associate and Neo-Impressionism's foremost publicist and memorialist." Whereas Seurat was something of an introvert, the outgoing Signac was both a prophet and a sort of social secretary for the new style. He introduced Seurat to the Impressionists and the Symbolist writers. In exchange, the younger and mostly untrained Signac benefited from the instruction of his older colleague.
While Signac had begun creating interior scenes, including his first major one, The Milliners (1885-86), he still preferred landscapes, cityscapes, and other outdoor scenes and his first divisionist exterior scenes such as The Junction at Bois Colombes and Passage du Puits Bertin, Clichy (both 1886) were painted of sites in and around Asnières.
Signac met Vincent van Gogh in Paris in 1886 and the two artists developed a friendly working relationship, frequently going together to sites such as Asnières to paint both interiors and outdoor scenes. Evidently, Van Gogh was most impressed by the loose brushwork of Signac. Signac paid a visit to Van Gogh in Arles in 1889 and taught him how to paint in the Neo-Impressionist style.
Signac was also quite politically engaged. In 1888, he immersed himself in anarchism, particularly in the ideas of Kropotkin and Jean Grave, among others. Along with Pissarro and two other friends, Maximilien Luce and Angrand Cross, Signac made regular financial contributions to Grave's anarchist-communist paper, Les Temps Nouveaux (New Times). His painting and his political beliefs often intersected, as was the case with his production of a work titled, In the Time of Harmony (1893), which had initially been titled, In the Time of Anarchy. Anarchists were at that time being targeted by authorities, so Signac was forced to change the title or suffer potential persecution.
In 1891, Seurat died, thus ending the nearly decade-long collaboration between the two artists. After Seurat's death, while Signac continued to paint in the Neo-Impressionist style, his brushwork became looser and more expressive and colorful.
In November of 1892, Signac married his longtime companion, Berthe Roblès; the two were married in Montmartre and Pissarro and Luce, among others, were witnesses at the wedding. In 1897, the couple moved to an apartment in the celebrated Castel Beranger, built by Art Nouveau architect, Hector Guimard and that same year also bought a house in the South of France, in Saint-Tropez. In the Saint-Tropez house, Signac constructed a large studio, which was completed late in the summer of 1898. It was there that the artist produced some of his most colorful and celebrated works in the Neo-Impressionist style, particularly works featuring boats, beaches, and seascapes.
By the time of the 1905 Salon des Indépendants, the Neo-Impressionist style had exerted considerable influence in the world of avant-garde art. The influence was directly evident, for instance, in Henri Matisse's so-called "proto-Fauve" work, Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm, and Voluptuousness, 1904), which featured the Neo-Impressionist technique and Signac's bright, expressive palette. Matisse had read Signac's essay, "From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism" (1898-9) and had been inspired to adopt the new style. Indeed, it was Signac who bought Matisse's painting after the exhibition closed.
Signac's rate of artistic production didn't cease as he grew older. Even in the early-20th century, he was still creating art, whether watercolors, oil paintings, or drawings. In 1902 he exhibited over 100 watercolors at the Maison de l'Art Nouveau, Siegfried Bing's gallery in Paris. By 1911, watercolor had become his medium of choice and, once again, he exhibited a large series called The Bridges of Paris at the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune, also in Paris. Following his move to Antibes in 1915, he was appointed the Peintre Officiel de la Marine (Official Naval Painter) there. For Signac, to live was to paint and to paint was to live; he really never stopped producing art, beginning yet another series of paintings of French ports in 1929.
Signac died on August 15, 1935 at the age of 71 of septicemia; his grave is in the infamous Paris cemetery, Pere Lachaise. In addition to an enormous body of work, Signac has also been credited with having penned a number of seminal works on art theory, a monograph on Dutch painter and printmaker, Johan Barthold Jongkind (1927), and numerous essays for exhibition catalogs.
The Legacy of Paul Signac
Signac played a pivotal role not only in the establishment of an alternative exhibition structure, the Salon des Artistes Indépendants, and its sponsoring organization, the Société des Artistes Indépendants but, in the larger picture, in liberating artists and art from traditional hierarchies and conventions imposed by the Academy and the Salon.
In terms of his artistic output and radical innovation, Signac was enormously influential for Henri Matisse and André Derain, the Fauve artists who modified his technique and emulated his use of bright, extremely expressive colors. His technique, which pushed forms near to the point of abstraction by breaking them up into areas of solid, juxtaposed colors, paved the way for further abstraction, including the flattening and fragmentation of forms of the Cubist style.