Paintings of Paul Signac 12: Pointillism

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Lighthouse at Groix (Cachin 568) (detail) (1925), oil on canvas, 74 x 92.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In the previous episodes in this series looking at the paintings of Paul Signac (1863-1935), I have shown most of his accessible oil paintings, from the start of his career to shortly before his death. Before I move on to look at a selection of his watercolours, I pause here to consider how his pointillist technique had changed over that period of nearly fifty years.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Les Andelys. Côte d’aval (Op 139) (1886), oil on canvas, 64 x 95 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

In his earliest pointillist paintings, he appears to have applied larger areas of even colour, allowed them to dry, then applied small patches of what are usually contrasting colours. These are most clearly visible in the foreground, on the tiller and the decking of the barge. These small patches aren’t generally organised, but are applied fairly evenly over much of the painting. Neither do they change size according to how deep they are into the view.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Avant du Tub (Op 176) (1888), oil on canvas, 45 x 65 cm, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of years later, his technique has changed little, although the patches applied on more even surfaces, such as the water, are noticeably larger than those on the boats in the foreground.

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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.

Five years on, and this detail of his portrait of a Woman with a Parasol shows the patches organising over the surfaces of the model’s face and neck. He also uses the principle of simultaneous contrast: the dominant colours used in the handle of the parasol change from orange to green and back again according to the surrounding colour.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Saint-Tropez. La Terrasse (Cachin 320) (detail) (1898), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 91.5 cm, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another five years later, in 1898, this detail of La Terrasse shows his use of a fine black outline to pick out the figure and her arm. Although slightly larger than his regular landscapes, its swirling patches of colour are relatively coarse.

Paul Signac, The Demolisher (detail) (1897-9), oil on canvas, 250 x 152 cm, Musée de Beaux-Arts, Nancy. WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Signac (1863-1935), The Demolisher (detail) (Cachin 336) (1897-9), oil on canvas, 250 x 152 cm, Musée de Beaux-Arts, Nancy. WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons.

This detail of The Demolisher from the same period has greater contrast in the colour of its patches, and more obvious organisation of their placement according to the topography of each surface.

Paul Signac, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (detail) (1905-6), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Signac (1863-1935), Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (detail) (Cachin 433) (1905-6), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.

Shown in this detail of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, Marseilles from 1905-06 is the elongation of his patches into rectangular tiles or tesserae of paint. These are visibly coarser-grained in the foreground, finer and almost merging in the distance and sky.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), The Port of Rotterdam (Cachin 448) (detail) (1907), oil on canvas, 87 x 114 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1907, these tesserae were an established feature, replacing his more variable blobs. Each is arranged according to the form of the object, and some are relatively thick if not impasto.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), The Port of La Rochelle (Cachin 505) (1915), oil on canvas, 46.5 x 55 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Nancy, France. Image by Vassil, via Wikimedia Commons.

Carefully oriented tesserae continued for the rest of his career, here in this detail from The Port of La Rochelle, from 1915.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Lighthouse at Groix (Cachin 568) (detail) (1925), oil on canvas, 74 x 92.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

A decade later there is little change in his construction or technique, and many of the tesserae are formed using impasto. This is a far cry from his early paintings of the late 1880s.