Paul Signac (1863–1935): watercolours and ink drawings
We commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Paul Signac by presenting a small collection of his watercolours and ink drawings. This French painter and graphic artist was also an art theoretician and ardent advocate of Neo-Impressionism.
Signac was born on November 11, 1863 in Paris and was expected to become an architect. His good family background meant he was free to decide on a career. At the age of seventeen, he discovered the work of the leading impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), which stimulated his desire to become a painter. Influenced by Monet, he painted on the banks of the Seine in Paris. He met other impressionists there, later exhibiting his artworks with theirs. However, the impossibility to freely confront his work led Signac and other like-minded artists to establish the Salon of the Independents, which he chaired for many years starting in 1908. He met Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and became familiar with his rational painting technique divisionism, initially called chromoluminarism, which was based on the scientific finding of the spectral division of colours and light and their psycho-physiological effects through the viewer´s eye. Signac became addicted to this artistic idea and abandoned instinctive and intuitive impressionism for good. He began uncompromisingly to apply a systematic principle based on the theory of the division of colours, lines and tones in his work. Seurat assembled a circle of artists (such as Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross and Camille Pissarro) who started experimenting with the technique of small dots in pure colours (which gave it the name pointilism). Their advocate, art critic Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), coined the name Neo-Impressionists for them in 1886.
When Seurat died (1891), Signac became the group's leading personality. In 1899, he defended the theory of the new aesthetics in a work entitled "From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impresionism". He said that Neo-Impressionists respected the fixed laws of art, rhythm, scale and contrast and that this technique made it possible for them to attain a degree of light, colour and harmony that could not be achieved by other means of expression. His considerations were understood as a manifesto and significantly influenced the development of art toward modernism after 1900; it is especially apparent in the Fauvists Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and André Derain (1880-1954). Signac never changed his position, remaining faithful to his subjective concept of Neo-Impressionism until the end of his life.
Signac's work formally developed in two streams, the second of which accorded with his passion for boating - he sailed along the coast of France and in the Mediterranean every year. In 1892, he discovered watercolour as the most suitable form for a frequent traveller. He quite naturally added the themes of ports and maritime landscapes to his repertoire. He captured hundreds of vistas of French ports and rivers in vivid watercolours, some of which became documents of places that later disappeared. He created some as final artworks while others served as studies for paintings that he later did in his studio in a quite different form visually resembling Venetian mosaics.
The oldest of the displayed drawings, Motif of the Bosporus dated 1907, is a view of the mouth of the Bosporus Strait near Constantinople (today's Istanbul). It is the property of the Karásek Gallery (Museum of Czech Literature). Signac's interest in this region was based on the contemporary French "Byzantiumania". Like many times before, the artist took a sketch from his boat, its composition using the water's surface and dominating Oriental city on the horizon. The brilliant watercolour in bluish silk tones with added colours is a direct study for his painting La Corne d´Or. La Suleimanie (1907).
Another artwork, the ink drawing Dredger on the Seine (1910) from the Jiří Karásek Gallery (Museum of Czech Literature), is a view of the Pont des Arts behind the floods in Paris. Signac captured this event in a series of drawings. Also on display are drawings from the collections of the National Gallery in Prague, which were purchased in 1924 at a solo exhibition organized for Signac by the Association of Fine Artists Mánes in Prague. The first is called Still Life with Jug and is dated 1918-1920. The drawing's general composition was inspired by the still lifes of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), especially his constructive brushwork and bird's eye perspective.
The next drawings on display dating from 1922-1924 document French ports with fishing boats (Lomalo, Croix-de-Vie, Petit Andely and Rouen). Signac captured them from the deck of one of his many boats on one of his frequent visits to these places. He used a brush to complete typical motifs sketched in Conté pencil in a specific range of watercolours; white paper was part of his concept. Signac mastered the watercolour technique and applied his experience in his monographic study of Johan Barthold Jongind (1819-1891) written in 1927.
The last two drawings come from the same place at the mouth of the Trieux River in Brittany. Lézardrieux Port is dated 1927 and the other drawing, Lézardrieux from 1929-1931, has a second name - "7 Juillet", which is the date the artist visited it. The visit led to an extensive series of watercolours of ports in France done in 1929-1931. Signac drew them upon agreement with Gaston Lévy, a great admirer and collector of Signac's works, who also published a comprehensive inventory of his oeuvre.
Signac sympathized with the anarchist movement but was a resolute pacifist. The World War I period strongly impacted him and he nearly stopped working. In 1934, he resigned as chairman of the Salon of the Independents to actively fight the fascists in Europe, but he died on August 15, 1935 in Paris. He is buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery.Zuzana Novotná, July 18, 2013