On October 21st, I looked at a work by the Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, which had been completed by him using the technique known as Pointillism or Divisionism. For a brief explanation of those terms, please go and look at that earlier blog. Today I want to look at a work by his contemporary and friend Paul Signac.
Paul Victor Jules Signac was born in Paris in 1863 and came from a prosperous family of shopkeepers. Originally he trained to become an architect but at the age of eighteen, after visiting a Claude Monet Exhibition, he decided to set off on an artistic career and learn the technique of en plein air painting. His earliest known works were landscapes or still-lifes and one can see in them an Impressionist influence, especially the works of Monet and Alfred Sisley. At the age of twenty he was tutored by the Prix de Rome winner Emile-Jean-Baptiste Bin. In 1884 he became a founder member of the Société des Artistes Indépendants and their Salon des Indépendants. The Salon des Indépendants was an annual exhibition which started in 1884 and was held in Paris by the Société des Artistes Indépendants. It was set up in direct competition to the Paris Salon. Many artists as well as the public became increasingly unhappy with the rigid and exclusive jurist-based selection policies of the official Salon. Just over twenty years earlier, in 1863 the first Salon des Refusés had been held for innovative artists whose works had been rejected by the official Salon. The Société des Artistes Indépendants which Signac co-founded had the motto “Sans jury ni récompense” which meant “no jury, no awards”. One of the other co-founders of this society was Georges Seurat and it was he who introduced the principles of Divisionism and the theory of colours to his friend Signac.
Signac, up until then, had been following the Impressionist style of painting but he became fascinated with Seurat’s technique, known as Pointillism. He then decided to experiment with this newly acquired technique of scientifically juxtaposing small dots of pure color on the canvas which combined and blended them in the viewer’s eye instead of the artist blending the colours on a palette before putting the combination on to the canvas. Signac was fascinated with this technique and was tireless in his attempts to convert others to Seurat’s methods. In 1885 Signac met Camille Pissarro, whom he introduced to Seurat. Pissarro realised that this technique was the answer to his desire to have a rational style and so adopted it with great fervour. Pissarro, against the wishes of the other Impressionists, invited Signac to participate in their eighth and last Impressionist Exhibition in 1886.
Signac loved to sail and a large number of his paintings featured the French coast and its harbours. He would progressively sail further afield, visiting various ports in the Mediterranean as well as the Dutch coast to the north. During the summers he would head south to the Côte d’Azur and St Tropez where he had bought himself a house in 1892. He would always return from his voyages with numerous sketches of the places he had visited and then back in his studio, turn them into beautifully coloured canvases that are carefully worked out in small, mosaic-like squares of colour, and which were quite different from the tiny, variegated dots previously used by Seurat.
He became friends with Vincent van Gogh and the two would spend time in Van Gogh’s Parisian home and his summer hide-away in Arles. From the mid-1880s Signac exhibited regularly. Apart from the Salon des Indépendants, in which he figured every year, he showed at the last Impressionist Exhibition (1886) at the invitation of Pissarro. It was not until he was almost forty years of age that he had his first one-man exhibition which was held at the Paris gallery owned by Siegfried Bing. However like his Neo-Impressionist friends he received little public acclaim for the first 20 years of his career. On Seurat’s death in 1891, Paul Signac became the leader of the Neo-Impressionists
Signac was a great inspiration to the young and up-and-coming painters such as Henri Matisse and André Derian. It was his support that played a vital role in the evolution of Fauvism. Fauvism was the short-lived and loose group of early twentieth-century Modern artists whose works emphasised the artistic qualities of strong colour more than the representational or realistic values of the Impressionist painters. Signac became president of the annual Salon des Independants in 1908 and retained that position until his death. As such, Signac encouraged and supported younger artists such as Matisse by allowing their works and the controversial works of the Fauves and the Cubists to be exhibited.
Signac died in Paris in 1935, aged seventy-two.
My Daily Art Display featured oil on white primed canvas painting today is not one of Signac’s landscape or seascape although it does highlight the unusual Divisionism technique. It is entitled Dining Room and was completed in 1887 and exhibited at the Paris Salon des Indépendants in 1887 that year. It now hangs in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, in Otterlo, Netherlands. Before us we see three people, a man and a woman seated at a table and a maidservant. Although the setting looks like it has all the accoutrements of a well-to-do bourgeois household, the dining room is actually that of Signac’s family, and before us we have Signac’s mother, grandfather and housekeeper. The room is lit from behind with light emanating from a window on the rear wall. This illuminates the subjects vividly and creates silhouettes and strong contrasts of light and shade. It gives a strong structure to the composition. See how Signac has highlighted areas of the painting by the use of barely tinted yellowish whites. The seated characters are rather wooden-like. They sit at the lunch table in stony silence. There appears to be no communication between Signac’s grandfather and mother and the setting is devoid of anecdote. There is a stiffness of what we see before us. There is a frozen solemnity about the scene and this may have been Signac’s way of pictorially criticising the strict and ritualistic sombreness of middle-class meal times.
I am not sure I like the Divisionism technique used in Signac’s indoor scenes. I think it works much better in his coastal landscape works. There is no doubt about it that it was a clever technique but it is just not for me.