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Paul Signac
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A leading Neo-Impressionist artist, Paul Signac adapted and publicized the theories of color that formed the intellectual basis for “divisionism” or “pointillism,” and expressed the theories in oil paintings, watercolors and lithographs. Born into a prosperous Parisian family in 1863, Signac’s inheritance allowed him to pursue his artistic career while maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. Inspired by the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in 1879 and an exhibition of works by Claude Monet (1840-1926) in 1880, Signac abandoned his schooling and become a painter. He worked in the Impressionist style, often painting outdoors; his early works show the influence of Monet and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899). Signac soon became friends with many of the artists of the period, including Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), who introduced Signac to sailing, which became a passion. Signac was largely a self-taught artist; his only formal artistic training was a brief time spent in 1883 with the academic painter Émile Jean Baptiste Philippe Bin (1825-1897). One of the founders of La Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 (becoming president of the Société in 1908), Signac participated in its first exhibition that year, at which Georges Seurat (1859-1891) showed his painting Une Baignade, Asnières (Bathers at Asnières, 1884, National Gallery, London), done in a radically-new style. Signac rapidly adopted Seurat’s painting technique of small dots of color arranged based on theories of color, adapted it to his own style, and used it for the remainder of his career. His new style appears in the paintings he showed in the Eighth (and last) Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, along with “divisionist” works by Seurat, Camille Pissarro (1831-1903) and his son Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944). The Symbolist critic Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) first applied the term “Neo-Impressionism” to describe their work. Signac was interested in the theories of light and color propounded by a number of scientists of the time, and his 1890 portrait of Fénéon (New York, Museum of Modern Art) shows his command of such theories. Signac’s interest in color led him to write a treatise on color and defense of Neo-Impressionism, D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme (From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism), published first in installments in La Revue Blanche in 1898 and then in book form in 1899. Signac began painting watercolors in 1892, encouraged by Pissarro. He quickly mastered the medium, and found that a watercolor box was easily carried while traveling or sailing. In time Signac no longer painted oils out of doors but only in his studio, while he painted watercolors both in his studio and outdoors, leading to different styles. His oils remained carefully planned and meticulously executed, while his watercolors, executed quickly, used a free and energetic technique. Exhibitions of Signac’s works after 1892 included watercolors as well as oils; his first solo exhibition at Siegfried Bing’s (1838-1905) gallery L’Art Nouveau in 1902 included 99 watercolors. In 1928 he decided to paint a series of watercolors of the one hundred ports of France, and completed the project in 1932 at the age of sixty-nine, with two views of each port. While Signac’s output of prints was limited to of twenty lithographs and seven etchings, several are memorable. Asked to provide a theater program for André Antoine’s (1858-1943) avant-garde Théâtre Libre in December 1888, Signac created the lithograph Application du Cercle Chromatique de Mr. Ch. Henry (Kornfeld/Wick [K/W] 4), which illustrates Charles Henry’s (1859-1926) theories of color. A few prints were made in conjunction with paintings, such as Le Démolisseurs (The Wreckers, 1896, K/W 15). Other images appear only as prints, including a lithograph of Saint-Tropez for André Marty’s (1857-?) series L’Estampe originale (The Original Print, 1893-1895) in 1894. Signac’s left-wing, anarchist political views did not limit his comfortable life or his willingness to be made a member of the Legion of Honor in 1911. In addition to maintaining sailboats and two homes, he was an art enthusiastic collector, owning about 250 works at his death. He habitually spent winters in Paris and summers on the French seacoast, mostly in Brittany during the 1880s and at locations along the Mediterranean coast over the next three decades. Signac continued to travel until the end of his life, visiting Corsica in 1935 and painting watercolors as he went. Falling ill on his return to Paris, he died in August of that year. He had been honored by a retrospective of his work at the Petit Palais the previous year. (TNB 7/2010) Selected bibliography: Bocquillen-Ferretti, Marina and Anne Distel, John Leighton and Susan Alyson Stein. Signac: 1863-1935. Exhibition catalog. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Cachin, Françoise. Paul Signac. Paris: Bibliothèque des Arts (in French) and Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society (English translation by Michael Bullock), 1971.