Paintings of Paul Signac 17: 1883-95 Boats and the Bourgeoisie

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Sur l'émail d'un fond rythmique de mesures et d'angles, de tons et de teintes, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890 (Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890) (Op 217) (1890-91), oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last few months I have looked at many of the oil and watercolour paintings of Paul Signac (1863-1935), a modern master whose work spans a period of enormous change in art, from Impressionism to Modernism. In this article and its sequel I provide a short survey of some of his major paintings, together with links to each of the articles in that series.

1 Becoming Divisionist

After a promising start painting landscapes in Impressionist style, Signac’s oil paintings made the transition to Georges Seurat’s new Neo-Impressionism in early 1886.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), La Neige. Boulevard de Clichy (Snow, Boulevard de Clichy, Paris) (Op 128) (1886 Jan), oil on canvas, 48.1 x 65.5 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Much of his view of Snow, Boulevard de Clichy, Paris, from January 1886, is white, but it also features more vivid colours in Divisionist passages such as the wall of a house at the right. Rather than using the established complementary colours of red and green for his spots of paint, he here chooses red and blue, and blue and yellow (which are complementary), signs of his developing insight into colour combinations.

2 Les Andelys

Seurat’s transition may well have been precipitated by his friend Camille Pissarro, who switched to Neo-Impressionism in January 1886, and must have been greatly influenced by Georges Seurat, who moved into a new studio next door to Signac’s in June.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Les Gazomètres. Clichy (Gasometers at Clichy) (Op 131) (1886), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting of Gasometers at Clichy is one of the first of his excursions into this new territory. This is one of many views that he painted of the immediate vicinity of his family’s house, several of which show similar industrial motifs. At the time these gasometers were novel, and were probably designed by Gustave Eiffel, who was just starting work on designing his eponymous tower.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Les Andelys. La Berge (Op 141) (1886), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Les Andelys. La Berge shows this picturesque bend on the River Seine, where the ruins of the Château Gaillard overlook the riverside houses. This has featured in many more traditional paintings of these twin villages.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), La salle à manger (Breakfast, The Dining Room) (Op 152) (1886-87), oil on canvas, 89 x 116 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Following his earlier painting of two milliners in Les Modistes (1885-86), Signac found inspiration in Caillebotte’s painting of Luncheon (1876) for another interior, this time showing the bourgeoisie at table. La salle à manger, variously known as Breakfast or The Dining Room (1886-87) is perhaps his first major Neo-Impressionist painting. Critical reception was encouraging, and this was exhibited in Brussels the following year at the Salon des XX.

3 To the water

From his early career, Signac was enamoured with bodies of water, from inland rivers to the ports and coasts of France. He also engaged in a range of water activities, from paddling small craft to sailing large yachts.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Cassis. Cap Lombard (Op 196) (1889 Apr-Jun), oil on canvas, 83.5 x 99.8 cm, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1889, when he was on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille, he painted five substantial canvases, including this view of Cassis. Cap Lombard. All show coastal scenes, and when he exhibited them together with seven paintings of Portrieux at the Salon des XX the following year they had the overall title of The Sea.

4 Two deaths and marriage

Paul Signac, Un Dimanche (Sunday) (1888-90), oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, Private collection. WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Signac (1863-1935), Un Dimanche (Sunday) (Op 201) (1888 Oct – 90 Mar), oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, Private collection. WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, which Signac started in October 1888 and completed in March 1890, is perhaps the best-known of his interiors, and continues their theme of the humdrum life of the bourgeoisie. Its composition is a modification of Caillebotte’s Interior: Woman at the Window (1880), which Signac developed from a lithograph and a series of studies. Its static, stultified composition and atmosphere are intentional, and pervade its every detail.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Sur l’émail d’un fond rythmique de mesures et d’angles, de tons et de teintes, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890 (Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890) (Op 217) (1890-91), oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In total contrast is Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890-91). This is a unique combination of colour theory, Japonisme, decorative art, and portrait, set against a background of colour wheels expressed according to a Japanese kimono pattern.

His friend Félix Fénéon is shown as the dandy he appeared to be, but has the air of a circus ringmaster, perhaps reflecting his ability to spot and encourage artistic talent. He was an odd contradiction, by day a clerk in the War Ministry, a well-known anarchist suspected of bombing a restaurant in 1894, and one of the most astute art critics of the time. Somehow Signac captures all of those, together with their long friendship.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Concarneau. Rentrée des chaloupes. Opus 222 (presto finale) (Concarneau, Return of the Sloops) (Op 222) (1891), oil on canvas, 66.5 x 82 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

More typical of Signac’s fine maritime paintings is Concarneau, Return of the Sloops (presto finale) (1891), which shows the coast of Brittany, and sold unusually quickly. This marks the end of his first period of Divisionism, before he discovered the light and colour of the Midi.

5 Colour and anarchy

After the early and sudden death of Georges Seurat, Signac became the de facto leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement, and continued to develop and practice its colour and optical theory, particularly in his paintings of the Midi.

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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 in which he shows her face clearly. 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.

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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.

Saint-Tropez. The Red Buoy 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.

References

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.