Paul Victor Jules Signac was a French artist associated with the Post-Impressionists. Along with fellow artist and intimate friend Georges Seurat, he strived to continue the Impressionists' formal research. Together they created Divisionism, a method influenced by the recent discoveries of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who studied and nominated the phenomena of simultaneous contrast. Divisionism, also regarded as Pointillism, created its color dynamic by juxtaposing small brushstrokes and using complementary colors. Signac was the author of From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, a manifesto-book that used Delacroix as the basis for a new approach to color and painting.
Paul Signac was born in Paris, 1863. He belonged to a family of prosperous saddle merchants who were originally from the Asnières commune, on the northeast section of the French capital. Signac's father's store was named Passages des Panoramas, and he prided himself on working for the Royal family. Little is known about his childhood, but what is known is that his father was an amateur draftsman and that his passion for the activity might have influenced his son.
1879 was a pivotal year in young Signac's life. He was only sixteen and living close to the Montmartre neighborhood, a cultural hub of 19th-century Parisian life, in which he saw with a certain frequency the interactions of art students. He started to visit the art dealing stores in those quarters and got a taste for painting.
In this same year, he visited the 4th Impressionist exhibition on the Avenue de L'Opera. On this occasion, he was especially captivated by Edgar Degas' works. Later on in his life, Signac remembered fondly that during one of his extended stays in the exhibition, while he was sketching and observing the pictures, Paul Gauguin threw him out, saying: "No copying here, monsieur!".
Another of the French artist's early influences was Edouard Manet, whom he had seen at the Salon of 1879. The work in question was The Execution of The Emperor Maximilian. In Paul Durand-Ruel's gallery, a kernel of the French Modernist painters, he familiarized himself with more of Manet's work, later stating he was "a complete painter."
Although Paul Signac was an exceptional pupil while studying at a training course of architecture and was praised for his interest in literature, he decided to become an artist. His mother, who had encouraged him to be an architect, accepted her son's change of heart with no problem. The decision was inspired by an exhibit of Monet's work at the quarters of the magazine La Vie Moderne, which he was an avid reader. This was the most impactful contact that Signac had with art so far and what ultimately convinced him to become an Impressionist painter.
Right away, he started painting en plein air, or outdoor painting, which was a habit established by The Barbizon School and since then a stimulating way of practice for artists passionate about landscape painting. The first years of Signac's production were marked by an unmediated practice, in the sense that he had no master or classes. He painted around the outskirts of Paris for two years straight, using pure color and portraying his surroundings. These works were produced with the influence of Monet and Manet.
By 1883, after a couple of years of en plein air practice, the painter entered into the only Academy in which he studied. His master was an old winner of the Prix de Rome. Even though the experience didn't have any lasting impact on Signac's style, through a friend, he was introduced to the work of Paul Cézanne, which impressed him immensely. The artist even encouraged his mother and relatives to buy the works of Cézanne.
The Road to Gennevilliers is among the most impressive of the French artist's early pictures. Even though he hasn't yet arrived at his signature dots and unnatural color, here we already can see his usual brushstroke, even though larger in size, if compared to his more mature images. The palette is reminiscent, still, of Manet. The melancholy of the scene, along with the choice for a spacious and empty scenery, became some of Signac's traits. His tender treatment of his paintings holds its own. By this time, he was still only twenty years old but already created distinctive works with an Impressionistic visual grammar.
The definitive year in Signac's artistic development, and a major year for French art, was 1884. As the painter later recalled, he was walking through the streets of Montmartre when he saw some posters announcing the Salón des Artistes Independants. The group was unsatisfied with the curatorial choices of the official Salon and wanted to create a show that didn't have a jury, one that allowed artists to take risks and present their formal innovations.
Albert Dubois-Pillet, who was also captain of the Republican Guard, obtained authorization from the Minister of Fine Arts of Paris to make the Salon. He was also allowed a room in the military quarters B on the Rue des Tuileries. On the posters that Signac saw, Dubois-Pillet organized meetings with the rejected artists to elaborate together on this new event. Odilon Redon, Charles Angrand, and Henri Edmond Cross were some of the painters that participated in the organization and became Signac's close acquaintances.
The closest friend he had out of the circle was Georges Seurat. On June 9th of that year, both painters ended up sitting close to each other. Based on their contemporaries' descriptions, Signac was an expansive and energetic fellow, while Seurat had a chilling cold visage and a reserved air. Seurat was four years older than his friend and already had reached a notable maturity in his work, as can be seen in masterpieces such as Bathing At Asnieres, a painting that was unlike any other.
The Salon des Artistes Indépendants went on to become something much more: the Société des Artistes Indépendants. Just as Impressionist artists had fought for their spaces and events before them, the Neo-Impressionists organized massive exhibitions under this society. With a "No jury nor awards" perspective, the group went on to defend the creative expressions of new painters. Their annual exhibition set Modern art's trends for three decades to come.
Seurat's work profoundly influenced him, even though it was more of a gradual influence. More immediate causes of inspiration were Camille Pissarro, with whom he became friends and encouraged him deeply. It was with Seurat, though, that Signac spent his evenings debating the experiments and writings of Chevreul, developing a new way and understanding of painting.
The Pointillist painters advocated for an aesthetic based on, or at least inspired by, scientific principles. They wanted to use pure pigment without mixing, so they could emulate and recreate the nature of color under lighting. While working with pigment, the addition of primary colors end up in black or a brownish-grey; the opposite is true to light: white is reached through the addition of all colors. Seurat and Signac started using small brushstrokes, points of pure color, as their units to create compositions. Using complementary contrast was the final touch to their way of creating luminous and colorful pictures.
By 1886, Félix Fénéon, a literary and art critic, named the group around the Société des Artistes as the Neo-Impressionists. Favored by the grace of Pissarro, Seurat and Signac participate in the eighth and last Impressionist show. The older painters of the exhibition were already interested in other artistic matters, and the event marked the end of a group and the start of a new one.
In 1887, Paul Signac met Vincent van Gogh, who admired Signac's loose painting technique. A year later, the two artists regularly went to Asnères-sur-Seine together to paint subjects such as river landscapes and cafés. They maintained a friendship throughout the years, and Signac paid a visit to Van Gogh in Arles in 1889, influencing the Dutch painter's style.
Signac wrote an essay d'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionism in 1898. The text used as the artistic basis, along with the study of optics, were the writings of Delacroix, who in his journals advocated for the use of color based on juxtaposition. The piece inspired Henri Matisse to adopt the Divisionist technique. Later, Matisse painted the proto-Fauve painting Luxe, Calme et Volupté, exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in 1905. The picture was made in a trip alongside Signac and was later bought by him, being the first painting that Matisse ever sold.
The artist came in contact with anarchist ideas by reading Kropotkin, Elisee Reclus, and Jean Grave. He contributed with considerable financial support to Grave's paper Les Temps Nouveaux, along with his friends Maximilien Luce, Pissarro, Angrand, and Edmond Cross. Signac's painting In the Time of Harmony was initially titled In the Time of Anarchy. Still, it was forced to change its title due to political repression towards anarchists in that period in France.
From 1908 until his death, Signac was the president of the Société des Artistes Independants. Occupying such status, the artist encouraged several young artists to exhibit controversial artworks by Cubist and Fauvist artists.
Paul Signac died in August 1935, in Paris, France. The artist was 71 of age when he passed away.