French painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) was one of the leading figures of Neo-Impressionism, the school of painters that followed the Impressionists. The extraordinary quality and quantity of his artistic work, which included oils, watercolors, etchings, lithographs, and pen-and-ink pointillism, was matched by the breadth of his interests as a writer and, toward the end of his life, his deep opposition to fascism.
Paul Victor-Jules Signac was born in Paris on November 11, 1863. His father, Jules Jean-Baptiste Signac, was a harness and saddle maker, as was his grandfather. Signac's mother was Héloïse Anaïs-Eugénie (Deudon) Signac. The Signac family lived above the shop run by his father. As a child Signac was described as delicate and high strung by his father. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) he was sent to northern France to live with his maternal grandmother and her second husband. By 1877 Signac was enrolled at the Collège Rollin in Montmartre (now the Lycée Jacques Decour); he remained a student there until 1880, the year his father died of tuberculosis. Soon after his father's death the family business was sold, thus releasing Signac from having to maintain it.
The year 1880 was pivotal for Signac. In April he visited the fifth Impressionist exhibit and began making sketches after a painting by Edgar Degas. Gauguin, no less, spotted him and threw the 16-year-old Signac out of the building. Later that year, with the urging of his mother and grandfather, he reentered the Collège Rollin to study mathematics, but withdrew after the first term. By the end of the year he had begun painting and also taken up what became a lifelong hobby: boating. (During his lifetime Signac would own 32 sailing crafts.) Almost a year later Signac, along with six or seven others, formed an informal literary society, which they named Les Harengs Saurs Épileptiques Baudelairiens et Anti-Philistins ("The Epileptic, Baudelarian, Anti-philistine Smoked Herrings").
The next year, 1882, proved a busy one for Signac. In February and March he published two essays in the journal Le Chat Noir, and that summer he began his habit of escaping Paris for the countryside or the sea to paint. His first such trip was to his maternal grandmother's home at Guise where he painted The Haystack. Signac later designated this as his "first picture." Most important, Signac met Berthe Roblès, a distant cousin of artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). They became lovers and were married in 1892. Roblès's first appearance in Signac's work was in "The Red Stocking," which Signac painted in 1883. Also in 1883 Signac began studying with painter Émile Bin (1825-1897). Among his influences at this time was Claude Monet (1840-1926).
Société des Artistes Indépendants
Over the next few years Signac came into his own as an artist. In 1884 he became involved with the French literary symbolists and cultivated their friendship. Among this group was journalist Felix Fénéon (1861-1944), who became one of Signac's staunchest allies. He also began selling his paintings that year. In May 1884 Signac met Monet in Paris and soon after met Georges Seurat (1856-1891), with whom he had a close friendship. On June 11, 1884 Signac, Seurat, Charles Angrand (1854-1926), and Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910) formed the Société des Artistes Indépendants and from mid-December 1884, through January 17, 1885, the group held its first exhibition in Paris to benefit cholera victims.
Another important figure in fostering Signac's career was Pissarro, whom he met in early 1885. The next year the Pissarro connection came through when Signac was invited to exhibit in New York City at an exhibition titled "Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionsts of Paris," although none of his six paintings sold. By then Signac had painted "The Junction at bois-Colombes, The Gas Tanks at Clichy," and "Passage de Puits-Bertin, Clichy," all in the divisionist style, in which dots of contrasting color are placed side-by-side to create a luminous visual effect. In the spring of 1886 Signac exhibited at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition, though his and Seurat's presence in the exhibition caused something of a controversy that was only smoothed over through Pissarro's intercession. On September 19, 1886, the term "néo-impressioniste" was used for the first time in a review by Fénéon of the second exhibition of the Independents. However the term did not come into general use until 1892. Signac was on the exhibition's hanging committee and exhibited ten paintings.
In 1887 Signac met Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) in Paris. The two not only became friends but painted together in April and May 1887. By the end of that year Signac, Seurat, and Van Gogh had exhibited together.
In late January 1888 Signac traveled to Brussels to exhibit at the Salon des XX. He 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 begun to appreciate Signac's contribution to the movement.
Leader of Neo-Impressionists
On March 29, 1891, Seurat died suddenly in Paris. The death of his friend thrust 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. Soon after Seurat's death Signac anonymously published an article titled "Impressionistes et révolutionnaires" in the literary supplement of La Révolte. That summer he sailed in several regattas off the coast of Brittany, and in 1892 had seven paintings exhibited in the eighth exhibition held by the Neo-Impressionists. Later that year he exhibited his work in Antwerp and in December showed seven paintings in the first Neo-Impressionist exhibit, among them "Portrait of My Mother," "The Dining Room," and "Woman Arranging Her Hair." Signac also made the first of many trips to Saint-Tropez to paint and relax.
At the end of 1893 the Neo-Impressionist Boutique was opened in Paris and in 1894 Signac had an exhibition there of 40 of his watercolors. He exhibited widely in the late 1890s and early years of the 20th century in Paris, Brussels, Provence, Berlin, Hamburg, the Hague, Venice, and elsewhere. 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, Signac was, and had been for some time, squarely in the anarchist camp: in 1898 he signed a collective statement supporting Emile Zola's position in the infamous Dreyfus Affair and in 1906 placed an antimilitary drawing in Le Courier européen.
In 1896 Signac began working on his study of Delacroix and in mid-1899 published D'Eugéne Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, excerpts of which had already appeared in French and German journals. In 1903 the German edition was published.
In 1909 Signac exhibited three pieces at the International Exhibition, better known as the Odessa Salon: "Traghetto Lantern," "Diablerets," and "Port Decorated with Flags, Saint-Tropez." After Odessa the exhibition went to Kiev, Saint Petersburg, and Riga. Beginning in 1910 Signac slowed his output from the incredible pace he had maintained for more than 20 years. His sole painting that year was "The Channel, Marseilles," and in 1911 he painted only "Towers, Antibes." From there his output increased to nine paintings in 1912-1913, but he never again painted at his earlier, youthful pace.
Signac and his wife, Berthe, permanently separated in 1913, but they never divorced. The separation was amicable and the pair remained in contact with each other, Signac providing his wife with financial support. Signac then began living with his lover Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, who gave birth to their daughter, Ginette-Laure-Anaïs on October 2, 1913. Less than a year later, in August 1914, World War I began. Signac was deeply affected by the war and painted very little—in 1917 he acknowledged that he had only painted seven pictures in three years—despite the fact that in 1915 he was named as a painter to the department of the navy. The annual exhibitions held by the Société des Artistes Indépendants were suspended, Signac himself rejecting a call to resume the exhibitions during wartime. By the time the war ended Signac was involved in taking care of his finances, specifically the welfare of Selmersheim-Desgrange and their daughter. In December 1919 he entered into an agreement with three art dealers, turning over his artistic output to them at the rate of 21 oil paintings per year. The contract was renewed annually until 1928, when it was renegotiated.
Elder Statesman of French Art
In early 1920 the Société des Artistes Indépendants renewed their annual exhibition (their 31st that year) though Signac was too ill to fully participate. However he recovered sufficiently by spring to assume the post of commissioner of the French Pavillion at the Venice Biennale, where he mounted a special Cézanne exhibit. All 17 of Signac's works exhibited at the Biennale were sold within a month. Long acknowledged in the communities of artists and collectors, his fame was further cemented in 1922 when he was the subject of a monograph by Lucie Cousturier. In 1927 Signac published a monograph of his own devoted to the painter Johan Barthold Jongkind. In late 1928 he accepted a commission to paint the ports of France in watercolors. He began with the eastern Mediterranean port of Sète in January 1929 and worked his way south, then west, and then northward. He continued working on the series until April 1931. Politics and finances occupied Signac in the last years of his life, which coincided with the Great Depression. In December 1931 Signac he met with Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) in Paris. Despite his close friendship with Marcel Cachin, director of the French Communist Party daily newspaper, L'Humanité, Signac refused to join the party. He did, however, lend his support in 1932 to the Bureau of the World Committee against War and often attended meetings of the Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals.
In January 1933 Signac testified on behalf of Henri Guilbeaux, who had been sentenced to death in absentia for high treason in 1919. Guilbeaux ultimately returned from the Soviet Union and was acquitted. At the end of 1933 Signac was made a commander of the Legion of Honor. In failing health by 1934 he prepared for the 50th anniversary of the Société des Artistes Indépendants and its 45th exhibition. In February he published an attack on the École des Beaux-Arts in Monde. Signac's health generally deteriorated as the year wore on, and on November 7, 1934, he resigned as president of the Société and was succeeded by Maximilien Luce.
In January 1935 Signac participated in the 46th exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants; it was his final one. That March he was invited to tour the USSR but declined for health reasons. In May 1935 the Société named Signac its honorary president. The following month he 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 his journal, edited by George Besson, were published in Arts de France.
Ferretti-Bocquillon, Marina, and others, Signac, 1863-1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.
"Paul Signac (1863-1935)," Olga's Gallery, http://www.abcgallery.com/S/signac/signacbio.html (February 28, 2003).
"Paul Signac: French Neo-Impressionist Painter, 1863-1935," http://renoirauction.com/biography/signac.htm (February 28, 2003).