Over the last three weeks I have shown a few of the watercolour sketches made by Paul Signac (1863-1935), which may have come as a surprise if you’ve previously only known his pointillist oil paintings. In this article I look at how those watercolour sketches changed in response to Signac’s exposure to the late watercolours of Paul Cézanne.
Although I’ve been unable to find many good images of Signac’s early watercolour sketches, the following seems to be fairly representative of those he painted in the nineteenth century.
Harbour (1894) is one of the many sketches he made of the harbour of Saint-Tropez while he lived there, which appear to have been primarily intended to lead to finished oil paintings in pointillist style.
When he visited the port of Rotterdam in 1906, his watercolour sketches were still fairly conventional. His use of white ‘reserved’ space is here mainly for white clouds of steam, where it remains representative. This sketch made in front of the motif was the basis for his finished oil painting of Steamboats, Rotterdam later that year.
Over the same period, Paul Cézanne’s watercolours were very different.
It was during this time that Cézanne started to paint some of his most experimental work in watercolour, such as these Three Pears from about 1888-90. Outline forms have become more prominent, with centrifugal application of colour washes, leaving the central areas of objects as white space.
Perhaps the finest example is this Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit from 1906, the year of Cézanne’s death. The fruit follow his centrifugal use of colour, the carafe is merely outlined in strokes of ghostly blue, as are the grapes in the centre. The wine bottle, though, has full colour apart from its label.
This unique approach extended to landscapes. These Almond Trees in Provence painted in 1900 leave large areas of reserved space between scattered flares of raw colour.
His House at the Edge of the Water from the period 1900-04 has similarly sparse application of colour. These resemble watercolour sketches with added colour notes, used by other artists in preparatory studies and sketches. Sadly, Cézanne never explained his intent in these watercolours, but he didn’t use them to develop oil paintings.
Cézanne’s paintings, particularly his late watercolours, remained largely unknown until after his death. Signac’s first exposure to them came in 1908. The effect on his watercolours is clear.
Just at the outbreak of the First World War, Signac holidayed with his family in the French Alps, where they visited the almost unpopulated commune of Saint Julien-Beauchene, seen in this watercolour sketch of 1914. He doesn’t appear to have used this in any subsequent oil painting, and its extensive use of reserved space is a remarkable change.
After he had recovered from his depression from the war, Signac painted some floral still lifes, among them this watercolour from about 1920-24.
His watercolour landscape sketches continued to be influenced by Cézanne, as seen in this view of L’île-aux-Moines painted in 1925.
Paul Cézanne’s late watercolours were no longer unique.