Paul Signac

gigatos | January 22, 2022


Paul Signac, born November 11, 1863 in Paris, where he died August 15, 1935, was a French landscape painter, close to the libertarian movement, which gave birth to pointillism, with the painter Seurat. He also developed the technique of divisionism. Co-founder with Seurat of the Society of Independent Artists, of which he was president, he is a friend of Victor Dupont, Fauvist painter and vice-president of the Salon.

Between impressionism and fauvism

Paul Signac was born in Paris in 1863 to a prosperous family of saddlery merchants in Asnières (now Asnières-sur-Seine). In 1879, at the age of 16, he visited the fourth Impressionist exhibition where he noticed Caillebotte, Mary Cassatt, Degas, Monet and Pissarro; he even began to paint, but Gauguin kicked him out of the exhibition with the words, “One does not copy here, sir.” In March 1880, he lost his father. A non-conformist spirit, Signac was adored by his mother, who wanted him to become an architect; but he decided to leave high school in October 1880 to devote himself to a life of painting. She respected his choices. He visited the fifth Impressionist exhibition and admired Édouard Manet at the Salon. The same year, he painted in Montmartre and rented a studio. In 1882, he met Berthe Roblès, a distant cousin of Pissarro. He married her ten years later.

He began to paint in 1882 in Montmartre (Émile Bin”s studio, where he met Father Tanguy), in the studio on rue Constance, and improved on his own under the influence of the Impressionists. He befriended the symbolist writers, asked for advice from Monet who agreed to meet him and whose friend he remained until the master”s death. The young Signac participated in the first Salon des Indépendants in 1884 with two paintings: Le Soleil au pont d”Austerlitz and L”Hirondelle au Pont-Royal; he also participated in the foundation of the Société des artistes indépendants. He met Georges Seurat who exhibited A Bathing in 1884 in Asnières. A constant in his life is the need to escape.

The neo-impressionists influenced the next generation: Signac inspired Henri Matisse and André Derain in particular, playing a decisive role in the evolution of Fauvism. At the 1905 Salon des Indépendants, Henri Matisse exhibited the proto-Fauvist painting Luxe, Calme et Volupté. The brightly colored composition was painted in 1904 after a summer spent working in Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera alongside neo-Impressionist painters Henri-Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. The painting is the most important work of Matisse”s Neo-Impressionist period in which he used the divisionist technique advocated by Signac, which Matisse had adopted in 1898 after reading the latter”s essay, D”Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme. As president of the Société des Artistes Indépendants from 1908 until his death, Signac encouraged young artists by exhibiting the controversial works of the Fauves and Cubists. Signac was the first patron to buy a painting by Matisse, so it was he who bought Luxe, Calme et Volupté.

The theoretician of neo-impressionism

Signac works with Seurat and Pissarro, with whom he will form the group of “scientific impressionists”. He quickly converted to the practice of scientific division of tone. The empirical technique of pointillism consists in dividing the tones into very small patches of pure colors, squeezed together, so that the eye of the spectator, by recomposing them, perceives a unity of tone. Signac and the Neo-Impressionists think that this division of tones ensures all the benefits of coloring: the optical mixing of only pure pigments allows to find all the tints of the prism and all their tones. The separation of the various elements (local color, lighting color and their reactions) is also ensured, as well as the balance of these elements and their proportion, according to the laws of contrast, degradation and irradiation. Finally, the painter must choose a touch proportionate to the size of the painting. In 1885, his interest in “the science of color” led him to go to the Gobelins where he attended experiments on the reflection of white light.

He made his first divisionist painting in 1886. Compared to Seurat, Signac constructed the painting in a more spontaneous, intuitive way, and his color is brighter. He sympathized with literary symbolism, especially in Belgium. He retained several elements, including the idea of a harmony halfway between the lost paradise of the golden age and the social utopia and the ambition of a total art. On this last point, he agreed with Hector Guimard, and it should be noted that he lived from the beginning, around 1897, in one of the workshops of the Castel Béranger built by the latter, on Rue La Fontaine. In 1886, he participated in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition at the invitation of Berthe Morisot. The following year, he befriended Vincent Van Gogh and together they painted on the banks of the Parisian suburbs.

During the 1890s, after a trip to Italy and a stay in Cassis and then in Saint-Briac in Brittany, he became the leader of neo-impressionism: an enthusiastic apostle of the movement, he engaged in a veritable campaign of proselytizing to win new followers. In 1892, he discovered Saint-Tropez, where he bought the villa La Hune five years later, and organized posthumous exhibitions of Seurat in Brussels and Paris. In 1894, he tried his hand at large-scale decorative painting, especially for a huge picture – since 1938, property of the Montreuil town hall -, Au temps d”harmonie. Nevertheless, if it is true that Signac had good personal relations with the Nabis, especially Bonnard, he did not share their aesthetic views at all, and did not adhere to the religious creed of Maurice Denis. He wanted to be an impartial personality, above the schools, a friend of all, flexible and friendly, and became president of the Society of Independent Artists in 1908.

The neo-impressionist movement was called into question after Seurat”s death in 1891, so Signac tried to legitimize it with his book De Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, published in 1899. The publication of Delacroix”s Diary between 1883 and 1895 also had a great influence on Signac since he decided to make his own diary in 1894, which he opened with a reflection on the relationship between Delacroix and neo-impressionism. Signac thus legitimizes the neo-impressionists by placing them as heirs to Delacroix, whose talent is not in doubt, described as the father of the colorists.

The Impressionists are thus the intermediaries between Delacroix and the Neo-Impressionists for the progress of art, which for Signac consists in making a work as colorful and luminous as possible. From Delacroix to the Neo-Impressionists is a manifesto that was initially considered a reliable source, since Signac had been one of Seurat”s closest friends, before being questioned, notably by William Homer. According to him, Signac”s work is too simplified, and he underlines the fact that between the beginning of neo-impressionism (1886), and the date of publication, (1899), his ideas would have evolved and would no longer be faithful to Seurat. Signac would also have wanted to give himself the role of co-founder of the movement, whereas he would have been relegated to the background during Seurat”s lifetime. Indeed, in his work, Signac paradoxically downplays the importance of scientific theories, but this is in response to criticism of being too dogmatic. He insists that science is only a tool at the service of the artist and that it does not limit his creativity. These techniques are easy, and can be learned according to him from elementary school.

Signac the anarchist

Most of the important painters made a kind of pilgrimage to Signac”s house in Saint-Tropez (villa La Hune), with personalities as different as Matisse and Maurice Denis. He was passionate about the sea and owned a small yacht with which he sailed along the various French coasts. As early as 1888, he was attracted to anarchist ideas. In 1891, during the Salon des Indépendants, he presented a portrait of his friend Félix Fénéon with whom he shared his anarchist commitment; the portrait caused a sensation. He befriended Jean Grave and collaborated with the Temps nouveaux, from 1896, to whom he donated some of his works to the raffles organized to help the newspaper financially. In 1902, he gave drawings for Guerre-Militarisme, prefaced by Grave and also illustrated by Maximilien Luce and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen. He also contributed to the Almanach du Père Peinard (1894-1899), by Émile Pouget. In a more or less socialist perspective, he painted The Demolisher in 1897.

In 1914, Signac remained faithful to his internationalist conceptions and was very affected by the rallying of many anarchists to the sacred union, in particular by Jean Grave”s signature to the Manifesto of the Sixteen. Thereafter, he committed his talent to landscapes without characters, with an increasingly free palette and a great passion for color (recreating nature). Among his paintings: Portrait of Félix Fénéon, Le Grand-Père, Le Petit Déjeuner à la salle à manger, Femmes au puits, landscapes of Brittany and Normandy, Mediterranean paintings (Vue de Collioure, La Voile jaune à Venise).

He was appointed official painter of the Navy in 1915. From 1913, he separated from Berthe and stayed regularly in Antibes with his second wife, Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, also a painter. In 1915 they had a daughter, Ginette. This period was a troubled one for Signac, as he lived through the First World War with great pain.

In 1929, he initiated a series of watercolors of French ports, with the support of his patron Gaston Lévy, co-creator of the Monoprix stores. This project led him to visit a hundred ports aboard a Citroën C4 and was completed in 1931. He painted two watercolors in each port: one for himself and one for his patron, for a total of nearly 200 paintings.

In 1930, he rented a fisherman”s house in Barfleur, in the rue Saint-Nicolas.

He died in 1935, at the age of 71, of a long illness. He is buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, division 67.


See also the Public Collections section below.

Drawings and watercolors

For his watercolors, Signac”s palette was composed of the following colors and in this order of succession: first the yellows (pale cadmium, light, dark and orange), then the reds (vermilion, golden madder, pink madder and dark madder), cobalt violet, blues (ultramarine, cobalt, caerulean) and finally the greens (Veronese green, emerald, Prussian green, Hooker green). He also varied his tints by adding a touch of Chinese white, which gives “milky whites, pearly pinks, mauves of exquisite finesse”. His watercolors often represent landscapes and outdoor scenes on the banks of rivers or on the seashore. Numerous museums around the world are the holders of his paintings and exhibitions are regularly organized to highlight his great technical mastery.

Public collections

With more than fifty museums having works in their collections, Paul Signac is one of the French artists particularly present in collections around the world. In addition to the paintings and watercolors listed below, there are also many drawings and lithographs, such as the Application of the Chromatic Circle by Charles Henry, which have certainly contributed to a wide dissemination of his work and his artistic approach.

Below are listed the museums that allow access to the works online on their website or on sites in which they participate. This list is not exhaustive. The sources indicated give access to the visualization of the works. The places are classified in alphabetical order (country then city and names).

Johannesburg Art Gallery

Berlin, State Museums

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum and Corboud Foundation

Essen, Museum Folkwang

Frankfurt, Städel Museum

Hanovre, Lower Saxony State Museum

Mannheim, Kunsthalle

Munich, Bavarian State Painting Collections – Neue Pinakothek

Remagen, Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck

Saarbrücken, Saarlandmuseum

Stuttgart Staatgalerie

Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum

Melbourne, Galerie nationale du Victoria

Vienna, Albertina Museum

Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario

Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst

Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

Baltimore Museum of Art

Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Cambridge (Massachusets), Harvard Art Museums

Chapel Hill, Musée d”art Ackland, Université de Caroline du Nord.

Chicago, Art Institute

Cleveland Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art

Denver Art Museum

Des Moines Art Center

Detroit Institute of Arts

Huntington Museum of Art

Kansas City, Musée d”art Nelson-Atkins

Musée d”art du comté de Los Angeles

Minneapolis Institute of Art

New York, le Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, Museum of Modern Art

Norfolk, Chrysler Museum of Art

Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum

Philadelphia, Barnes Foundation

Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art

San Diego Museum of Art

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Seattle Art Museum

Stanford University, Cantor Art Center

Toledo Museum of Art

Washington, National Gallery of Art

Helsinki, Ateneum Art Museum

Bagnols-sur-Cèze, Albert-André Museum

Besançon, Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology

Chambéry, Museum of Fine Arts

Grenoble, Grenoble Museum

Marseille, Cantini Museum

Nancy, Museum of Fine Arts

Nantes, Museum of Arts

Paris, Carnavalet Museum

Paris, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

Paris, Marmottan Monet Museum

Paris, Musée d”Orsay

Saint-Malo, Museum of History of the city and Ethnography of the Malouin country

Saint-Tropez, Annonciade Museum

Strasbourg, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

Toulouse, Bemberg Foundation

Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Hakone, Pola Art Museum

Hiroshima Museum of Art

Matsue, Shimane Art Museum

Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art

Mexico, museo Soumaya

Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet

Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum

Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum

The Hague, Kunstmuseum

Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Warsaw, National Museum

Bucharest, National Museum of Art

Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum

Glasgow, Galerie d”art et musée Kelvingrove

Leeds Art Gallery

London, The Courtauld Gallery

Moscow, Pushkin Museum

Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Basel, Kunstmuseum

Zürich, Sammlung Emil G.Bührle


In 1899, Signac published D”Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, a sort of manifesto of what he considered to be the new painting, republished by Hermann in 1998.

External links


  1. Paul Signac
  2. Paul Signac
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