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An Anarchist’s Art

Signac, 1863–1935

catalog of the exhibition by Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon, Anne Distel, John Leighton, and Susan Alyson Stein
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 9–December 30, 2001.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 340 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)

Signac: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint

by Françoise Cachin, with Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon
Paris: Gallimard, 430 pp., FF750

Signac et la libération de la couleur: De Matisse à Mondrian

edited by Erich Franz
Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux,398 pp. (out of print)


On March 21, 1890, the Petite Presse in Paris gave an account of the visit by the president of France, Sadi Carnot, to the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. “President Carnot had himself introduced to Messieurs Seurat and Signac, two young impressionists, who made themselves available to explain to the President the processes and merits of the new school.”1 This was the most public moment in the curious partnership of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, leaders of “the new school” that has since been known as Neo-Impressionism. Seurat was a loner, secretive to the point of jealousy, whereas Signac was an ebullient, outgoing activist who was the spokesman for the movement. The partnership ended with Seurat’s death at the age of thirty-one in April 1891, but ever since the two have been so closely linked that Signac’s luster has become dim alongside the glory of his friend.

Signac’s own light now shines brightly in the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, especially in a wonderful sequence of riverscapes and seascapes beginning in 1887 at Collioure in southwest France. There are also several ambitious figure paintings, including the extraordinary Sunday of 1888–1890. Its atmosphere of bourgeois confinement arises from complicated decorative patterns that foretell both Art Nouveau and Art Deco. However, Signac’s figure pictures fade away during the 1890s and are anyway eclipsed by his seascapes. Further, they suffer somewhat from the inevitable comparison with Seurat. Although their stiff human figures are deliberately “primitive,” Seurat’s people strike us as more convincing. Seurat had been trained in the classic French tradition, with drawing at its heart; he would still be considered a major artist if only his marvelous velvety drawings had survived. Signac, who came from a well-to-do family of Parisian shopkeepers, was entirely self-taught. He never developed Seurat’s ability, in both his drawing and painting, to condense human form into believable solid images.

In Signac’s seascapes there is a virtue in his lack of concern for the structure of light and dark that underlies Seurat’s paintings. From his beginnings in 1883, aged twenty, Signac had used a hot palette, with much orange and red, and very loose brushwork—Monet was his idol—so that color came forward to the surface. Indeed, his earliest landscapes and one still life in the exhibition could almost pass for work by van Gogh although he painted them before the Dutch artist arrived in Paris.2 After meeting Seurat in 1884, Signac rapidly adopted a more refined stroke and contributed to the rise of what has often been called “pointillism.” Both painters hated that term, which refers only to the small strokes (seldom “dots”) they used, preferring “divisionism” which more correctly signifies the division of color into its constituent hues.

In the last Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, when Seurat gained instant notoriety with his Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Signac showed a distinctive style. Gas Tanks at Clichy has small streaks and dabs, more energetic than Seurat’s, that construct oppositions of orange-reds, greens, tans, and blues. These differ from Seurat’s contrasts, which are attenuated by the interplay of hues, and shadings of light and dark. Signac’s Town Beach, Collioure of 1887—a premonition of work there by Matisse and Derain two decades later—invites comparison with Seurat’s seascapes of Honfleur of the previous year but here, too, there are significant differences. His brushstrokes are larger and more irregular; his contrasts of oranges and blues are a brassier call to forceful sunlight than his partner’s. Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon in the Metropolitan Museum’s catalog succinctly characterizes what is distinctive about Signac:

Signac’s temperament did not in fact yield when faced with the constraints of Neo-Impressionism. In his painting we do not find Seurat’s delicate light, distant poetry, or aristocratic hauteur, but a brilliance of color, a boldness, and an authority that speak of a completely different nature. His paintings express disciplined energy, channeled rather than stifled by the taxing process of painting small dots or by the arduousness of executing preparatory studies, drawings, and sketches. This impatient nature, which would, we imagine, be sorely tried by the slow work involved in working up the painted canvas, also had a predilection for precision and intensity.

Signac went south again in 1889 and fired up his explosions of oranges and blues at Cassis. In Cap Canaille, Cassis, a late afternoon sun enhances the orange of the cliff that towers over the bay. In the foliage on the cliff and reflections in the water we see a wonderful interlacing of oranges, greens, and blues that do not dissolve into a single color but create a vibration of hues that was the real goal of the “optical mixture” made famous by the Neo-Impressionists. This seascape and more than a dozen others flood the third and largest room of the exhibition with wonderfully luminous works which alone are worth a visit to the show.

Signac was a close friend of Symbolist writers Paul Adam, Félix Fénéon, Gustave Kahn, and Jules Laforgue,3and the involvement with Symbolism is evident in three of the seascapes he did in 1891 in Concarneau, Brittany. The musical subtitles of the Concarneau canvases echo the preoccupation with correspondences among the arts that characterized Symbolism. Morning Calm (Larghetto) and Evening Calm (Allegro Maestoso) are constructed around the contrast of curving, nearly animistic rocks in the foreground with the calm horizontals of the sea, punctuated by the repeated silhouettes of fishing boats’ sails. Sardine Fishing (Adagio) is the most radically modern of the group. Against an orange-yellow sunset sky, the hulls of twenty or more small fishing boats off in the distance display identical shapes: thin rectangles with pairs of slanting masts, all lined up like notes on a musical staff. They ride on a yellow sea that turns blue in the foreground, where patches of mottled orange reflections repeat the boats’ staccato rhythms. As with the other seascapes of the late 1880s and early 1890s, light seems to come from within these pictures because of the high-keyed palette and because Signac did not depict the shadows that the objects would have cast. Defying the conventions of rendering nature’s light and dark, he seems to have created his own light.

Friendly critics saw in the paintings an attempt to embody the ideas of Charles Henry, the mathematician and aesthetician whose theories were featured in the Symbolist press. Henry’s ideas had attracted Seurat in 1887, but Signac went so far as to collaborate with Henry’s publications, offering him diagrammatic illustrations and creating a striking color lithograph (cat. no. 33) using Henry’s color system.4 The seascapes do not conform to any specific geometric scheme, but their well-ordered compositions reinforce the idea of a “scientific aesthetic” that the brushwork expressed.

In 1892 Signac bought a house and land in Saint-Tropez, before the port became well known for its artists. Most of his paintings are of the harbor and nearby shore, but one of his great works, Plane Trees, Place des Lices, painted in 1893, is dominated by the sensuous curves of tree trunks which rise up in saturated dark blues and purple-reds against the bright yellows of sunlit foliage. On the ground, amoeba-like patches of yellow are laid down on intermixed red-blue shadows to form a decorative platform for the serpentine writhing of the trees.

During the 1890s Signac gradually enlarged his brushstrokes until they resembled the separate pieces, or tesserae, that make up mosaics. By 1900 he was thought of as “Monsieur Color” in the French art world, partly because of his paintings, partly because of the book he published in 1899, D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme. Excerpted in the French and German press and going through numerous editions,5this book became the bible of the Fauves and many other artists because of its articulate discussion of color theory; Signac traced the practice of dividing color into its components from Delacroix onward. To many friends and younger artists, he passed on the lessons that he absorbed from looking closely at earlier artists’ techniques:

Oh! friend, if you want to know who is a free painter, go aboard at Dieppe and in two hours you can dine in London; the next day you go to the National Gallery and you can return the same evening, having had, for your two louis, the most useful lesson in painting that there is. When you return to Paris…I will try by diagrams and photos to initiate you into the splendors of the great Turner.6

Signac’s large mosaic-strokes gave him a unique place in post-Impressionist art, rivaled only by his close friend Henri-Edmond Cross, who used a similar technique and who also lived on the Mediterranean coast. Among artists (not yet the pub-lic), Seurat was a revered old master a decade after his death, but his three-dimensional modeling and illusionistic spaces did not then seem as modern as Signac’s and Cross’s rectangular blocks of pigment which gave color an autonomy that we can now see as prefiguring later abstraction. Signac’s book appealed to young artists who were deserting illusionistic procedures. He repeatedly stressed that brushwork should no longer be assigned the task of modeling three-dimensional form or expressing intimate feelings. Instead it should be dedicated to harmonies of pure color and to the decorative surfaces that resulted.

Most of the Fauves and several nascent Cubists and Futurists (Delaunay, Metzinger, Severini) adopted for a time Signac’s tessellated brushwork, most famously Matisse, who stayed with Signac at Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904. Signac’s role as one of the godfathers of radical painting of 1900–1910 is hardly hinted at in the exhibition catalog, and is given only a few paragraphs in Françoise Cachin’s introduction to the catalogue raisonné. To appreciate his influence one should turn instead to the catalog of the enterprising exhibition organized by Erich Franz in 1997 for museums in Münster, Grenoble, and Weimar, Signac et la libération de la couleur: De Matisse à Mondrian.

Franz and his collaborators pay special attention to Signac’s influence on Fauvism, early Cubism, Futurism, and German art, with several scholarly essays that analyze both his art and his activity as a writer, organizer of exhibitions, and propagandist for pure color. The catalog, it must be said, was written from a strictly modernist perspective, concerned mostly with Signac’s use of color as a nearly autonomous feature of art while largely ignoring his political radicalism (a common failing, to which I will return). In fact the exhibition skipped entirely over Signac’s early career for it began with his work in 1893, when he had enlarged his brushstrokes to emphasize divided color without much recourse to illusions of solidity and depth. Visitors in Münster, Grenoble, and Weimar therefore did not see the earlier seascapes that light up the walls of the Metropolitan Museum.

By 1905, when Signac exhibited paintings of Venice, critics were able to praise him for his modern color and structure, and also for being an heir of Claude Lorrain and J.M.W. Turner, that is, for being both modern and “classic.” The classical was not incompatible with Fauve painting. Matisse recalled traditional nudes in some of his work, and we might also remember that Maillol’s famous Méditerranée was sculpted in 1905 and that Renoir was painting numerous classicizing nudes in these same years. In his journal and his letters, Signac wrote that his work embraced “tradition and science.” His claim to science was partly based on his chromatic harmonies divided into rational units of pure color; and his awareness of tradition led him to draw on great works of the past so that his art would be linked with history and would not succumb to pure abstraction. From the late 1890s until his death he painted major European seaports, including Marseille, Antibes, La Rochelle, Rotterdam, Genoa, Venice, and Constantinople. From Ferretti-Bocquillon’s typically well-informed catalog entry for The Basin of San Marco, Venice, we learn that this picture, with its echoes of Claude and Turner, was repeatedly exhibited between 1905 and 1912 in France and Germany, and was widely admired by critics including Maurice Denis and the Cubists’ defender, André Salmon.

  1. 1

    From the Bonneau press service, in Seurat’s album of press clippings (Bibliothèque d’Art et d’Archéologie Jacques Doucet, fonds de Hauke).

  2. 2

    Later, Signac and van Gogh painted together in 1887, and Signac visited van Gogh in the asylum of Saint-Rémy in 1889. Signac and several of his contemporaries are featured in a concurrent exhibition in the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, Neo-Impressionism: The Circle of Paul Signac (October 2–December 30, 2001).

  3. 3

    Signac took part in pre-Symbolist literary circles from 1881 onward. In 1885 and 1886 he introduced Seurat and Pissarro to the writers Robert Caze, Jean Ajalbert, J.K. Huysmans, Paul Alexis (Cézanne’s and Zola’s friend), and several of the young Symbolists, whose literary suppers he attended. Later he was a regular at Mallarmé’s “Tuesdays.” He was also a prominent member of a society devoted to Stendhal, and published privately in 1914 a guide to Stendhal’s writings.

  4. 4

    Signac’s relations with Henry are given two pages in Françoise Cachin’s introduction to her catalogue raisonné, but see also “Parade de cirque and the Scientific Aesthetic of Charles Henry,” in my Seurat: Drawings and Paintings (Yale University Press, 2001). Signac wrote an article on Henry in Cahiers de l’Étoile (January–February 1930), p. 72. “Around 1890 I was his obedient collaborator. For him, after my day at painting, I would use his Rapporteur esthétique and his Cercle chromatique to analyze or compose lengths, rhythms, tints and harmonies.”

  5. 5

    Willa Silverman gave the first English translation in Floyd Ratliff’s Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism (Rockefeller University Press, 1992).

  6. 6

    Signac to Angrand, April 18, 1898, in the archives of the late Pierre Angrand.

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