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.

The seascapes after 1906 seem often to respond to formulas and are sel-dom as appreciated as the earlier work (the current exhibition shows only six oils after 1906). However, beginning in 1900 Signac regularly showed watercolors alongside his paintings. They showed spontaneity and direct appre- hension of nature, and disarmed critics who found his paintings too mechanical. Earlier, about 1894, he had abandoned the Impressionist practice of painting directly in front of his subject. Instead he used watercolors to make studies from nature and then composed his canvases in the studio. Some watercolors preserve his instinctual grasp of natural effects, but they were only what he called “documents.” They allowed him to construct paintings that retained ties with natural settings and colors but that increasingly exhib-ited decorative intentions. Facing his canvas, he reorganized his “documents” to emphasize geometric harmonies, linear arabesques, strongly contrasting colors, and larger brushstrokes. The paintings make it obvious that he was creating a willful synthesis of artistic forms, and not a faithful copy. In this fashion he took part in the general shift of avant-garde art to the decorative in the 1890s.

Signac’s conspicuous brushwork and the geometric patterns of his paintings were such that his viewers could not suspend disbelief and simply see nature in his paintings. Besides, the absence of human beings and animals in his landscapes empha-sized that the paintings were pic-torial structures and utopian dreams, not scenes from the active life. His leaning toward abstraction is overtly expressed in his letters. In 1897 he wrote his friend Charles Angrand:

The least rhythm, the smallest measurement [in painting] seem to me much more important than apparent reality, and I’ve too often felt nature’s yoke not to dread it. When it’s not a nuisance, nature is often useless…. And yet what joys this source of all beauty brings us! The trick is to choose and to idealize, to simplify….7

By the later 1890s Signac displaced his lingering love of nature from oils to watercolors. Some were merely “documents” but most were independent works of art. Indeed the glory of Signac’s art after 1905 is found in his beautiful watercolors, worthy successors of those by the Dutch-French artist J.B. Jongkind, about whom Signac published a book in 1927. The exhibition organizers wisely show twenty watercolors completed after 1900, most of them riverscapes and seascapes. Fishing Boats, Le Pouliguen, painted in 1928, typifies the artist’s gifts in his later years (see illustration on page 22). Over quickly rendered swirls and hatchings in pencil, deliberately left visible, he brushed in irregular patches of colors. Reds, yellows, and blues were splashed over the water in the foreground; darker variations of these indicate the hulls of boats, then lighter tints rise in slanting swipes to create colored webs for the sails. Through their translucent triangles we see compacted buildings, rounded tufts of large trees, and the agitated spire of a church.


Anyone eager to study Signac’s work will turn to the catalog of the exhibition, with its helpful essays by Susan Alyson Stein and Anne Distel, and also to Françoise Cachin’s catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Signac, her grandfather, published last year. Her introductory biography is only a slightly revised version of her monograph of 1971,8 so for new information one turns to the expansive chronology of the artist’s life, prepared by Ferretti-Bocquillon, Cachin’s research associate. From the Signac archive Ferretti-Bocquillon has drawn a rich assortment of documents that are also the basis of the chronology in the exhibition catalog.9 She is also responsible for two essays in the Metropolitan Museum’s publication, and for its excellent entries on individual paintings (other colleagues did the entries on prints, drawings, and watercolors).

There is one glaring lack in these two publications and also in the catalog of the Münster, Grenoble, and Weimar exhibition. None of them includes a sustained discussion of the artist’s lifelong radical politics. Signac was a member of the Anarchist-Communist Party from 1888 onward, an outspoken antiwar pacifist during World War I, and a member of anti-fascist committees from 1933 until his death. (Subsequently a huge banner-portrait of him was carried in Popular Front parades, in homage to his radicalism.) Discussions of his political views in the Metropolitan’s catalog and the catalogue raisonné are limited to two large pictures of the 1890s, neither of which traveled to New York. In the Time of Harmony shows a future anarchist utopia, with people engaging in leisure activities in the foreground of a seaside landscape; work is relegated to a tractor and plow far off in the distance. The Wrecker, to be read as the destruction of capitalism, features heroic workers demolishing a building.

In Signac’s mind, the seascapes, which entirely dominate his work, were equally anarchist, and so was his technique. As a militant anarchist, Signac contributed prints to publications of the Anarchist-Communist movement, edited by Jean Grave, and he gave paintings to Grave’s fund-raisers. Pissarro and most of the Neo-Impressionists were either members of the movement or sympathizers with it; and the same can be said of several of the leading Symbolist critics friendly to those artists, including Fénéon, Adam, and Kahn. With Pierre Kropotkin as their leading theoretician, and utopian socialists as their acknowledged ancestors, the Anarchist-Communists, while opposing capitalism, communism, and parliamentary socialism, believed in communal ownership of property and individual anarchism. Following Kropotkin’s ideas, modern technology was to be decentralized and put at the service of largely autonomous productive units that would be established away from modern industrial cities, which degraded labor and life. Signac, Pissarro, and the others were attracted to Grave’s Anarchist-Communism because it opposed socialist realism in the arts. They believed that the arts, properly conceived, were instead manifestations of individualism and therefore contributions to a renovated society free of capitalist, or Communist, oppression.

To counter the views of some anarchists that artists should provide propaganda, Signac published an article in Grave’s journal in which he stated that it was a mistake for revolutionaries

to demand systematically a precise socialist tendency in art because this tendency is more strong and eloquent in the work of pure aesthetes, revolutionaries by temperament who, distancing themselves from beaten paths, paint what they see and feel, and often unconsciously give a solid blow of the pickax to the old social edifice.10

Although expressed with Signac’s usual vigor, this idea was not new. It had a long radical pedigree going back to Théophile Thoré, the radical critic of the 1840s, and to J.A. Castagnary, one of Courbet’s chief defenders.

For the Neo-Impressionists and Jean Grave to sacrifice art to didacticism or propaganda would be to submit to externally imposed ideas and hence to renounce individualism and with it, artistic quality. Pissarro’s anarchist sympathies are revealed in the peaceful agrarian settings of his paintings, Signac’s in the idyllic calm of his seascapes. Pissarro, born in 1830, drew upon the rural imagery of Barbizon painting, whereas Signac, born in 1863, adopted the leisure-time themes of Impressionism. Neither painter was indifferent to subject matter; in their view, artists were to provide images of a future society as ideals to strive for in political life, healthy environments in contrast to cities and to the lives of workers contaminated by the degradation of life and work in a corrupt society. We might remember that the political pressures for paid vacations and workers’ rural or waterside vacation camps came from the left and reached a climax under the Popular Front.

Signac’s seascapes therefore had an integral relation to his political beliefs and so, too, did his technique. Each stroke was like the member of an ideal anarchist society, maintaining its individual place but cooperating in the construction of a community. Harmony as a political ideal is made visible in the harmonies of color and composition. Signac’s impersonal procedure embodied a modern, scientific outlook central to Kropotkin’s theories, although these were applied to a decentralized industry in a utopian countryside.

Small touches of regular shape were doubly rational. First, they divided color into its constituent tints, calling upon the latest scientific writings to support artistic choices and not upon the Impressionists’ instinctual responses. Separate touches maintained the purity of color whereas the Impressionists’ random procedure often led to mixing and muddying adjacent strokes. Second, systematic brushwork was a rational procedure in keeping with progressive modern science because its impersonal regularity avoided the play of emotion and the personal idiosyncrasies of the Impressionists. For a time Camille Pissarro was so attracted to Neo-Impressionism that in 1887 he referred to the Neo-Impressionists as “scientific Impressionists” in opposition to the “romantic Impressionism” of Monet. He went so far as to refer to Monet’s brushwork as “crude execution” (exécution grossière).11

The principal goal of Signac’s colored strokes was to allow the play of pure color, freed from the need to describe different natural surfaces. By about 1900 these strokes take on lives of their own, for despite their regularity of placement, they are not mechanically applied. The force of the brush squeezes pigment outward to form ridges around the edges of each stroke. Each stroke has a saucer-like form whose little ridges cast tiny shadows that play a part in the texture, which is never flat. Moreover, when we look closely at the surface, we sense that the brushmarks can be seen as suggestive gestures, not only in their three-dimensional thickness but also in the way they follow the images they construct: verticals for masts, diagonals for booms, or swooping arcs for sails.

The brushstrokes, of course, also serve a descriptive function, for we see boats, water, shore, and sky; but for the Fauves and Cubists, Signac’s art, because of his radical technique and his devotion to color for its own sake, was a powerful stimulant toward abstraction. Writing in 1914, Roger Allard, one of the Cubist critics, saw in Signac a link with Claude Lorrain and with Baudelaire12:

M. Signac has celebrated, one after another, Genoa, Marseille, Constantinople, La Rochelle, but in every instance, in the East or on ocean shores, these are grandiose and moving visions from which, nuanced with rainbow exhilaration, rise echoes of Baudelaire….

What pleases in the art of M. Paul Signac is the certainty of its endurance, the absence of mannerism, not to speak of process. Process exists, but it is now integrated with the very genius of the painter: broken brushwork has ceased to be a system. It is a good natural language.

Whether or not contemporary critics will understand Signac in this way, I hope that the beauty of his early seascapes and of his later watercolors will give him a higher place than he now enjoys. Signac’s art is an admirable expression of a union of science and art that was achieved in the context of progressive social beliefs. When his work is understood in this way, we can appreciate his remarkable accomplishment: an aesthetic of pure painting as an allegory of social and political ideals.

This Issue

December 20, 2001