Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 340 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
Signac: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint
Signac et la libération de la couleur: De Matisse à Mondrian
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.” 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. 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 …