Paintings of Paul Signac 7: Rivers of France

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Castellane (Cachin 377) (1902-03), oil on canvas, 89 x 116 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the summer of 1899, Paul Signac (1863–1935) published his book From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, in which he gave his account of the evolution of painting in the nineteenth century.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), The Seine at Samois (Study 2) (Cachin 339) (1899), oil on board, 26.8 x 34.9 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In the autumn of 1899, probably October, Signac stayed in the small town of Samois, near Fontainebleau to the south-east of Paris. He painted a series of small Divisionist oil studies of the River Seine there, among which is this view of The Seine at Samois (1899). This reveals a transition in his technique, in which he applied relatively thick rectangular tiles of colour, oriented according to the object, over a thinner underpainting.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Le Pin de Bertaud (Cachin 354) (1899-1900), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

At Saint-Tropez, he continued to seek out spectacular trees. The Bertaud Pine (1899-1900) shows a well-known example near the Castle Bertaud in Gassin, a small village overlooking the bay of Saint-Tropez. The port is visible in the distance to the left of the tree, together with its prominent lighthouse.

To celebrate the new century, in January 1900 Signac passed his driving test and bought himself his first car. This enabled him to travel more widely around Saint-Tropez with his friend and colleague Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), another Neo-Impressionist. At the end of the year, just before he left Paris to return to Saint-Tropez, he submitted sketches for the decoration of the town hall in Asnières, but doubted his chances of success in the contest.

In the Spring of 1901, he exhibited The Demolisher (1897-99) at the seventeenth Salon des Indépendants.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Samois. Brume du matin (le vapeur ‘L’Hirondelle’) (Cachin 370) (1901), oil on canvas, 74 x 92.5 cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, Czech Republic. Image by Ophelia2, via Wikimedia Commons.

In October 1901, Signac appears to have returned to paint larger views of the River Seine near Paris. Samois. Morning Fog (Steamer ‘L’Hirondelle’) (1901) is an opportunistic combination of a misty river view with modern, more industrial technology. Its tiles of paint are clearly visible, in places amounting to thin impasto.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Samois. Entrée de l’écluse (Cachin 374) (1901), oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Samois. Entrance to the Lock (1901) shows a few people working a lock near the village.

Paul Signac, The Port of Saint-Tropez (1901-2), oil on canvas, 131 x 161.5 cm, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. WikiArt.
Paul Signac (1863–1935), Saint-Tropez (Cachin 359) (1901-02), oil on canvas, 131 x 161.5 cm, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. WikiArt.

Although Signac started work on this view of the port of Saint-Tropez in 1901, he didn’t complete it until early the following year. At its centre is the bell tower, and the citadel looks down from its upper right. Its sailing vessels, known as Tartans, are being loaded with their cargo of barrels.

Although its Divisionist technique and colours are thoroughly contemporary, it harks back to a tradition of port views by Claude Lorrain and Joseph Vernet. It was well received when it was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants that Spring, and went on to further exhibitions before being sold in 1907.

In June 1902, Signac had his first one-man exhibition at Siegfried Bing’s gallery in Paris, although it was dominated by his watercolours, and included only nine finished oil paintings.

That autumn, instead of returning to Samois, Signac went on a cycle tour of Haute-Provence, the hilly region between Saint-Tropez and the south-western foothills of the Alps. He painted about twenty watercolours in front of the motif, then returned to his studio and turned several into finished oil paintings.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Castellane (Cachin 377) (1902-03), oil on canvas, 89 x 116 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Castellane, painted through the winter of 1902-03, is one of a pair showing local gorges. This shows Notre Dame du Roc, the small chapel at the left end of the rock towering over the River Verdon, with the village of Castellane at the lower left. In the foreground are small groups of people on the riverbank, some engaged in washing clothes. Its companion shows the small town of Sisteron nestling in its gorge on the River Durance. Both were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903, and went on to acclaim at several exhibitions in Germany, where they helped establish Signac’s reputation.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Mirabeau Bridge (Cachin 389) (1903), oil on canvas, 66 x 82 cm, Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, Tel-Aviv, Israel. Wikimedia Commons.

When he was in Paris in 1903, he painted another of his views of the working river, this time showing Mirabeau Bridge in the west of the city. This modern bridge had only been completed in 1897, when it became the longest and highest bridge in the city. Its arches are lit bright orange, while labourers work at the small industrial site in the left foreground, with the chimneys of distant factories behind.

In August 1903, Signac took a holiday in the Swiss alpine resort of Les Diablerets. On 13 November, Camille Pissarro died in Paris.


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.