Signac was a French Neo-Impressionist painter who, working with Georges
Seurat, helped develop the pointillist style. Signac experimented with
various media. As well as oil paintings and watercolors Paul Signac made
etchings, lithographs, and many pen-and-ink sketches composed of small,
laborious dots. The Neo-Impressionists influenced the next generation
Henri Matisse and André Derain in
particular, thus playing a decisive role in the evolution of
Paul Signac was born in Paris on November 11, 1863 into a rather wealthy family and originally planned to study architecture. The neighborhood in which Paul Signac grew up lent itself well to nurturing a vocation in the arts, and as an only child he enjoyed the support of his liberal parents. As an adolescent, Signac was attracted by Impressionist paintings in gallery windows and went to the exhibitions held by the painters, then considered revolutionaries. Paul Signac was largely a self-taught artist.
Paul Signac spent a great deal of time at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1879 where he studied the works of the Impressionists, and through careful observation he began to emulate their style. In 1880, at the age of sixteen, he was thrown out of the fifth Impressionist exhibition by Gauguin for making a sketch after a picture by Edward Degas and was told disdainfully that "One does not copy here, Sir." In 1884 Signac met Claude Monet and Georges Seurat. Paul Signac was struck by the systematic working methods of Seurat, and his theory of colors and became Seurat's faithful supporter.
Under his influence he abandoned the short brushstrokes of impressionism to experiment with scientifically juxtaposed small dots of pure color, intended to combine and blend not on the canvas but in the viewer's eye, the defining feature of pointillism.
The banks of the Seine were to inspire many paintings, drawings, and watercolors by the young painter, but his earliest joy there was boating. His first boat was a canoe that he christened Manet Zola Wagner, a name expressing his youthful enthusiasm for modernity and artistic independence. Signac was tireless in his attempts to convert others to Seurat's methods. In 1885 Paul Signac met Camille Pissarro, whom he introduced to Seurat.
Finding in Seurat's technique the answer to his craving to a rational style, Pissarro adopted it with enthusiasm. Against the wishes of the Impressionists, he invited the Pointillist to participate in their eighth and last group show in 1886. On this occasion Signac exhibited mostly scenes of the Breton port of Saint-Briac and of the Paris suburbs.
In December 1885 Signac undertook his first major interior scene, "The Milliners". In it he depicted a world which he had come to know through Berthe Robles, who was herself a milliner and who posed for the figure on the left, bending to pick up her scissors. The painting, exhibited in May 1886 with the title Appreteuse et garnisseuse Modes (rue du Caire) (Finisher and trimmer. Millinery [rue du Carte]), shows a milliner's workshop in the Sentier quartier, which is still the garment district of Paris. The precise descriptions "finisher" and "trimmer" show that Signac proceeded in the same way as his friends the Naturalist writers, Huysmans, for example, described a dressmaker's shop in Les Soeurs Vatard, informing himself about the trade and its terminology.
Many of Signac's paintings are of the French coast. He left the capital each summer, to stay in the south of France in the village of Collioure or at St. Tropez, where he bought a house and invited his friends. In March, 1889, he visited Vincent van Gogh at Arles. The next year he made a short trip to Italy, seeing Genoa, Florence, and Naples. Paul Signac loved sailing and began to travel in 1892, sailing a small boat to almost all the ports of France, to Holland, and around the Mediterranean as far as Constantinople, basing his boat at St.Tropez, which he "discovered."
From his various ports of call, Signac brought back vibrant, colorful watercolors, sketched rapidly from nature. From these sketches, he painted large studio canvases that are carefully worked out in small, mosaic-like squares of color, quite different from the tiny, variegated dots previously used by Seurat. Paul Signot's friends included the journalist Felix Fénéon and the scientist and mathematician Charles Henry, both of whom were interested in Neo-Impressionism and published their views on color theory.
In late January 1888 Signac traveled to Brussels to exhibit at the Salon des XX. Paul Signac also wrote a review of the exhibition using the pen name Neo that was published in Le Cri du People. By this time the exhibitions of the Société des Artistes Indépendants were well-established annual events thanks to Signac's efforts as an organizer. Although Seurat was given first place among the Neo-Impressionists, critics had also begun to appreciate Signac's contribution to the movement. In 1890 Fénéon devoted an issue of "Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui" to the work of Signac.
On March 29, 1891, Seurat died suddenly in Paris. The death of his friend thrust Paul Signac into a primary position within the Neo-Impressionist movement. Pissarro, however, predicted the end of pointillism without Seurat. Indeed, Signac abandoned the technique in the early 20th century. In the 1890s he became more involved with writing, working on a journal he had begun in 1894. In 1896 the anarchist journal Les Temps nouveaux published a black-and-white lithograph by Signac titled "The Wreckers."
Politically, Paul Signac was, and had been for some time, squarely in the anarchist camp. In January 1935 Signac participated in the 46th exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants; it was his final one. That March Paul Signac was invited to tour the USSR but declined for health reasons. In May 1935 the Société named Signac its honorary president. The following month Paul Signac took to his bed with what turned out to be his final illness. Signac lingered for most of the summer but died in Paris on August 15, 1935. In 1947 fragments of Paul Signac's journal, edited by George Besson, were published in Arts de France.