Signac, the Colors of Water

Giverny, Musée des Impressionistes, from 29 March to 2 July 2013.
Montpellier, Musée Fabre, from 13 July to 27 October 2013.

1. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Port-en-Bessin. Le Catel, 1884
Oil on Canvas - 45 x 64 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

When asked in an interview for Le Petit Parisien in April 1935 [1] "What made you start painting ?", Paul Signac, then 71, answered : "It was Monet [...]. Monet, he added, who determined his fate as a painter on a day in June 1880 when, still a lycée student, he discovered the landscapes of the banks of the Seine in the artist’s first personal exhibition. He would never cease to admire these landscapes, of which Apple Trees Blossoming on the Water’s Edge constitutes one of the last additions to his collection of modern works in 1932. This is the theme of the exhibition at the museum in Giverny, to underscore the unswerving ties of the master of Neo-Impressionism with Impressionism. Yes, Monet was a revelation in those early years, but not only, for all of Signac’s oeuvre bears an Impressionist trace reflecting a natural predisposition to this sensitivity. Signac, les couleurs de l’eau treats this legacy from the thematic angle of the representation of water, one of the artist’s great leitmotifs, a perfect pretext for chromatic experiments. Five principal sections, rounded out by a documentary portion, assembling almost 130 works from public and private collections, both French and international, present in fact the ensemble of Signac’s career. From the very first landscapes of Port en Bessin in the early 1880’s (ill. 1) to the large watercolors of the Port of Ajaccio in 1935, the passion for color and the open air is tangible everywhere, as are the extensive ties linking Signac to Impressionism.

2. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Concarneau : Evening Calm (study), 1891
Oil on Panel - 26 x 35 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

3. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Evening Calm. Opus 220 (allegro maestoso), 1891
Oil on Canvas - 64.8 x 81.3 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum of Art/
RMN-GP/Malcom Varon

Thus, "From Andelys to Concarneau, the first Neo-Impressionist series : 1886-1891" in the second section suggests less of a break than a logical development of the youthful landscapes in "Signac impressioniste : 1882-1885" of the first room. Just like the artist who chose in May 1886, for the eighth Impressionist exhibition at the Maison Doré -, where a room was reserved for this young school - to mix paintings from his first manner with the new ones, the curator Marina Ferretti Bocquillon clearly demonstrates the debt to Impressionism. She reconstitutes "the first series of paintings just like Signac himself exhibited them at the Salons des Indépendants in Paris and des XX in Brussels" [2] and allows us to understand how he conceived these works, dominated by the harmony of the colors, by showing us the studies alongside the final compositions (ill. 2 and 3). From the marines at Saint Briac in 1885 to those of 1890 (ill. 4 and 5) the strokes narrowed, became more disciplined, but the color remained just as alive and free. Though the Impressionists were his masters, Signac turned his back from the start on their earthy colors just as, at the forefront of the Neo-Impressionist movement, he never sacrificed color to a systemic stroke.

4. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Saint-Briac. Le Béchet, 1885
Oil on Canvas - 50 x 79 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

5. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin. Opus 211, 1890
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 81.5 cm
Remagen, Arp Museum
Photo : Arp Museum/collection Rau pour l’Unicef/
Peter Schälchli

6. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Application of Mr. Charles Henry’s Chromatic Circle
(program for the Théâtre-Libre), 1888
Lithography - 16 x 18.5 cm
Archives Signac
Photo : André Morin

After meeting Seurat in 1884 at the first exhibition of the Groupe des artistes indépendants, he set down the theory explaining his natural inclination for color which he would describe in detail much later in 1899 in his manifesto D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme. Both Seurat and Signac were fascinated at the time by the scientific theories on the perception of color presented by Charles Blanc, Eugène Chevreul, Odgen Rood and Charles Henry, analyzed by Georges Roque in the catalogue’s second essay [3]. The chromatic circles (ill. 6), the colored shades and the works in the section "Théories de la couleur autour de 1885", drawn from the Signac Archives, document perfectly the first series called, thanks to Félix Fénéon in 1886, "néo-impressionistes". The idea is to paint by juxtaposing the strokes, not previously mixed on the palette, simply setting down pure colors which take on their own life. The eye of the viewer, when standing at a certain distance from the canvas and due to the natural blending process carried out by the retina, reconstitutes the shades, making "multicolored drops melt into ondulating luminuous masses ; the execution, one might say, disappears" [4].

7. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
La Tartane. Saint-Tropez, 1905
Oil on Canvas - 81 x 65 cm
Paris, Galerie de la Présidence Collection
Photo : Paris, galerie de la Présidence

When Seurat died in 1891, Signac became the leading figure of Neo-Impressionism, and his work, instead of becoming more radical, appears to have freed itself by opening up even further. In southern France, where he lived most of the time, his strokes became wider again and juxtaposed much as in a mosaic but without abandoning the separation of colors. The section "Saint Tropez 1892-1900 : de la lumière à la couleur" provides many examples of simplified compositions where color constructs the shapes and where reality seems to be not so much observed as invented (ill. 7) [5]. "L’appel du large : 1896-1935" continues the demonstration. Whether Signac returns to his early subjects, the banks of the Seine, the coast in Normandy and Brittany (ill. 8), or discovers French ports as well as the major European ones (ill. 9) - Venice, Rotterdam, Istanbul - he distances himself from the motif, sketches his impressions in watercolor before reconstructing them in his studio. These studies produced before the final composition were a constant in his work since 1892 before becoming autonomous works and taking over from the oil paintings starting in 1910. They are highlighted in the very beautiful final section entitled - "Oeuvres graphiques 1892-1935" - which presents an unpublished selection from many private collections (ill. 10 and 11).

8. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Mont Saint Michel : Mist and Sun, 1897
Oil on Canvas - 46.7 x 45.5 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

9. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Rotterdam : Smoke, 1906
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 92 cm
Shimane, Shimane Art Museum
Photo : Shimane Art Museum

10. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Antibes. La Tartane, 1913
Watercolor - 19 x 25 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R.

11. Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Schooners in Saint Malo, 1925
Watercolor - 30.5 x 40.5 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D.R

The setting of the exhibition, which does not impose any numbers or abrupt color separations of the sections, is perfectly attune with the theme, illustrating how Signac’s work is made up of a constant back and forth on water where Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism are always in close touch. Excellently put together, the exhibition catalogue reveals the correspondence between Paul Signac and the critic Georges Besson, documents held in the Archives Signac, for the first time. As part of the second edition of the Festival Normandie Impressioniste, highlighting the theme of water, which is to begin on 27th April, the Signac exhibition in Giverny then moving on to Montpellier, is a celebration of the 150th birthday of the painter as well as a tribute to his granddaughter, Françoise Cachin, who passed away in 2011, the author along with the curator Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, of the catalogue raisonné of the artist and the person behind the Archives Signac.

Curator : Marina Ferretti Bocquillon

Under the supervision of Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, Signac. Les couleurs de l’eau, 2013, Gallimard, 128 p., 35€. ISBN : 9782070141067.

Visitor information : Musée des Impressionismes, 99 rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny. Tel : +33 (0)2 32 51 94 65. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission : 6.50€ (reduced : 3€, 4€, 4.50€).

Version française

Julie Demarle, mardi 7 mai 2013


[1] Charles Kunstler, "Chez Paul Signac ou l’apothéose du pointillisme" (interview with Paul Signac), Le Petit Parisien, 4 April 1935.

[2] Diego Candil, Préface.

[3] Signac et la théorie des couleurs, pp. 30-39.

[4] Félix Fénéon, "Signac", in Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui n° 373, s.d., [1890], s.p.

[5] The second venue for the exhibition, at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, will develop this period of Signac’s life even further. The third essay in the exhibition catalogue in fact discusses this subject (Paul Signac en visite au musée Fabre, pp. 41-51).

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