Paintings of Paul Signac 5: Colour and anarchy

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Woman with a Parasol (Op 243) (detail) (1893), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Image by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Following their marriage in November 1892, Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Berthe Roblès remained in Paris, where the artist was arranging the First Neo-Impressionist Exhibition, held the following month. Early the following year he exhibited at the tenth Salon des XX and the ninth of the Indépendents. He took part in a further three exhibitions later that year as well. When he was able, Signac spent his time painting in Saint-Tropez in the Midi.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), The Bonaventure Pine (Op 239) (1893), oil on canvas, 65.7 x 81 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

While exploring Saint-Tropez that year, Signac came across a huge umbrella pine tree by the villa of a certain Monsieur Bonaventure, which he painted as The Bonaventure Pine.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Tartanes pavoisées (Sailing Boats in Saint-Tropez Harbour) (Op 240) (1893), oil on canvas, 56 x 46 cm, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Signac’s original title for this painting is Tartanes pavoisées, which translates loosely as Fishing Boats Dressed Overall. He painted three studies for this, to get its triangular composition right, and seems to have been pleased with the result, exhibiting it regularly. Two years later, he traded it for a bicycle, and in 1910 it became his first painting to enter a public collection, in Wuppertal, Germany.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Les Plantanes (Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez) (Plane Trees) (Op 242) (1893), oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA. Image by Photolitherland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Later that year, and continuing his theme of trees, he painted these Plane Trees in the Place des Lices in the centre of Saint-Tropez. Instead of showing the boules players who frequented the area, he shows an old man sitting on a bench in great serenity. Signac was fond of this painting, and exhibited it regularly until he finally sold it.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Woman with a Parasol (Op 243) (1893), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Woman with a Parasol is a portrait of the artist’s wife, and a Neo-Impressionist reworking of a popular Impressionist theme. Although Berthe Roblès had modelled for several of Signac’s previous paintings, this is the first time that he shows her face clearly. Although Signac seemed pleased with the result, this was the only portrait he painted of his wife, and completed the set of his family and friends including Félix Fénéon.

It’s an exemplary demonstration of the principles of simultaneous contrast in action. For example, the dominant colours used in the handle of the parasol change from orange to green and back again according to the surrounding colour. The detail below shows the colour transition in the parasol handle, and his Divisionist technique at this time, resulting in swirls of coloured patches of paint.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Woman with a Parasol (Op 243) (detail) (1893), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

This was one Signac’s last paintings to be assigned his own Opus number. For later works, I therefore give the number assigned in Cachin’s catalogue raisoné.

Signac devoted much of 1894 to work on his large painting In Time of Harmony, which he completed by the end of the year, but made alterations to it in 1895. Although I’ve been unable to locate a suitable image of his full-sized original, I show here a miniature copy he made slightly later on wood. He continued to exhibit, and to spend time at Saint-Tropez, although he informed Félix Fénéon that he had stopped painting en plein air. That seems curious, as from about 1892-93, Signac experimented with different techniques for watercolour sketching, based in part of those of Vincent van Gogh, and preparing the way for his later paintings of the Midi.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Au temps d’harmonie (l’âge d’or n’est pas dans le passé, il est dans l’avenir) (copy, c 1907) (Cachin 253) (1894-95), oil on panel, 65.5 x 81 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Au temps d’harmonie (‘In Time of Harmony’) or l’âge d’or n’est pas dans le passé, il est dans l’avenir (‘the Golden Age hasn’t passed, it has still to come’) (1894-95) is another large and ambitious work.

A man has dropped his spade to pick figs from the tree at the left. Another man reads, and two play boules on the right, while a woman gives her child some fruit. In the middle ground behind them, a couple embraces, while women pick flowers or hang laundry. Other figures sow seed, paint at an easel near the sea, and dance around an umbrella pine in the distance.

The composition is based on Puvis de Chavanne’s Pleasant Land (1882), and developed from where his Women at the Well left off. It’s also an overtly anarchist painting, from a time in France when anarchists were planting bombs, in June 1894 succeeding in killing the French President Sadi Carnot. Signac intended this to be the first in a series of paintings to be shown in a suitably public location. Although it attracted qualified praise, negotiations with the Maison du Peuple in Brussels broke down, and this monumental work didn’t leave the artist’s studio until after his death.

In 1895, Charles Henry published another book on the aesthetics of forms, illustrated by Signac. The artist was also involved in the production of a new German periodical, Pan. He exhibited many of his paintings of Saint-Tropez at the Salon des Indépendents, following which he left Paris to spend much of the rest of the year in the Midi again.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Saint-Tropez. The Red Buoy (Cachin 284) (1895), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Signac recorded in his journal that he started painting Saint-Tropez. The Red Buoy on 22 August 1895. It shows the Quai Jean-Jaurès behind the richly coloured reflections of those buildings, with a colour scheme dominated by the blue of the water, its complementary vermilion sail and buoy, and the pale orange of the buildings and their reflections. Signac developed the composition and colour harmonies during the summer of 1895 before starting the final version, which was exhibited to acclaim over the following two years.

While Signac had fallen in love with the water, and the light and colours of the Midi, he was to return to his early industrial theme shortly.


Cachin F (2000) Signac. Catalogue raisoné de l’Oeuvre Peint, Gallimard. ISBN 2 07 011597 6.
Ferretti-Bocquillon M et al (2001) Signac 1863-1935, Yale UP. ISBN 0 300 08860 4.
Ferretti-Bocquillon M et al. (2013) Signac, les Couleurs de l’Eau, Gallimard. ISBN 978 2 07 014106 7.