Paul Signac
Biography of Neo-Impressionist Painter.

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Grand Canal, Venice (1905)
Toledo Museum of Art.
A masterpiece of French painting.

Paul Signac (1863-1935)


Georges Seurat and Neo-Impressionism
Last Period

NOTE: For analysis of works by Pointillist painters like Paul Signac,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

The Papal Palace, Avignon (1900)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris. One of the
most famous landscape paintings
of the Pointillist movement.

See: Greatest Modern Paintings.


The Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Signac took over the leadership of the Neo-Impressionism art movement after the death of Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Signac focused primarily on landscape painting and seascapes in vivid bright colours. He was introduced to the colourist theories of Divisionism and Pointillism through Seurat, but went on to develop the style further. A leading theorist on the subject of colour in painting, his experiments with differing ways of applying paint influenced a number of schools of art, notably Fauvism, and Les Nabis, and specifically the work of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Andre Derain (1880-1954). Signac experimented with various media including oil, watercolour, etchings and lithographs. An important influence on Italian Divisionism, his most recognised contributions to Post-Impressionist painting include: The Papal Palace, Avignon (1900, Musee d'Orsay) and Port of Marseilles (1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He is one of the great Post-Impressionist painters.

Le Clipper, Asnieres (1887)
Private Collection.

See: Art: Definition and Meaning.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Paul Signac, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.


Paul Signac was born in Paris in 1863. He originally planned to study architecture, but on coming into contact with Impressionism, he decided to become an artist. As he came from a prosperous middle class family, he had the means to carve out the independence he needed to practice and study his trade. Initially he painted with his friend and fellow artist Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927). Guillaumin was on the fringes of the Impressionist group, but was friendly with Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Signac experimented with traditional Impressionist painting methods including short, thick strokes of paint to capture light quickly. He applied colour pigments side by side to allow for optical mixing, rather than pre-mixing. He applied paint wet onto wet, without waiting for layers to dry, this resulted in softer edges and the intermingling of colour. Paintings of Signac's from this early period include: The Road to Gennevilliers (1883, Musee d'Orsay, Paris); Still Life with a Book (1883, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin); and Rue Caulaincourt: Mills on Montmarte (1884, Musee Carnavalet, Paris).


Georges Seurat and Neo-Impressionism

In 1884 Signac was introduced to Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Signac was particularly struck by the scientific theory and methods employed by Seurat in his art, and he became a faithful supporter. Seurat was already thinking about the Post-Impressionism era. When he met Signac, he had just started painting his most famous work - A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86, Art Institute of Chicago). This painting went on to alter the direction of modern art by introducing Neo-Impressionism (a term invented by Felix Feneon), and is now seen as one of the most iconic paintings of the 19th century. Seurat was experimenting and writing papers on colour, its optical effects and perception. He believed that a painter could use colour to create an emotional effect in the viewer, and he could do this by manipulating colour intensity, juxtaposing complimentary colours as well as using the strength of horizontal and vertical lines. Seurat called this artistic language Chromoluminarism. For example, sadness, he stated, could be achieved by using dark, cold colours and by pointing lines downwards. Signac was tireless in his attempts to convert other artists to Seurat's methods, and when he met Camille Pissarro, he managed to persuade the Impressionist to also adopt Seurat's technique.


This technique in painting was developed by Seurat in 1886. Pointillism was a method where the artist painted small dots of pure colour, side by side, allowing the eye to optically mix the colour itself. As a technique, it is closely related to Divisionism. Where Divisionism however is more about the science of colour, Pointillism is more about the specific style of brush stroke used - a brushstroke that leaves dots of paints on the canvas. The main proponents of this movement, were Seurat, Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910). Signac's first large-scale attempt at Pointillism was his Two Milliners (c.1885, Buhrle collection, Zurich). In 1886 Pissarro invited the Pointillists to join the last Impressionist Group show in Paris. Signac's focus in the 1880s tended to focus more on domestic genre-painting, but this changed when he discovered sailing in 1892.


In the early 1890s Signac spent some time traveling around the South of France coast, visiting Van Gogh in Arles and finally buying a house in St Tropez. He loved sailing, and in 1892 he bought a small boat which he used to travel to all the ports in France. From this period onwards, his palette lightened in colour and he focused primarily on seascapes and painting ports and boats. He would sketch in watercolour or pencil, drawing rapidly and then return to his studio to produce oil versions on canvas. The earlier dots of Pointillism matured into larger squares, mosaic-like, in rich colours. Popular paintings from this time include Harbour at Marseilles (1906, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg), Port of La Rochelle (1921, Musee d'Orsay, Paris); Port of Marseilles (1905, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Blessing of the tuna fleet at Groix (1923, Minneapolis Institute of Arts).

Last Period

Between the period 1891 and 1893, Signac was also briefly a member of the French arm of Les Vingt group. This was a group of artists who exhibited together and shared an interest in Symbolism. Signac admired JMW Turner (1775-1851) and the Dutch artist Jongkind (1819-1891), about whom he published a monograph in 1927. By the 1920s the idea of Pointillism had long ceased to be avant-garde, but Signac steadfastly pursued the development of Seurat's colour theories. He published a book From Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, which summarised these theories, and did much to influence the next generation of modern artists, many of whom he encouraged by buying their paintings - he was the first to buy a painting by the colourist Henri Matisse, leader of the Fauvist painters. Signac became President of the Salon des Independants from 1908, and used his position to encourage new movements by organising exhibitions of the Fauves, Nabis and Cubists. He died in Paris in 1935.

Paintings by Paul Signac can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.


• For more biographies of Neo-Impressionist artists, see: Famous Painters.
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