France • 1863−1935

Biography and information

Having a cheerful personality can help you in life without a doubt. It might have seemed like after Gauguin had thrown Signac out of the Impressionist exhibition, and Monet gave him the cold shoulder after an enthusiastic letter, Paul Signac had every chance to turn away from painting forever and certainly from the Impressionists – that’s for sure. It was also possible for the artist to become a patient of a psychotherapist in order to deal with some past traumas and mental health problems for the rest of his life, or he might have approached the canvas just in order to protest against everyone at once. But Paul Signac avoided all of that, the psychotherapist’s couch could be removed, there was no need in that. He was very fond of the sea, painting, travel, and, even (you will not believe it) people.

A strong loving family (Paul was the only child), the absence of financial problems and support of the relatives created a quite strong internal foundation, which allowed to perceive such moments precisely as unpleasant ones (it happens to nearly everyone), rather than some major things. Paul’s father was the owner of the shop and managed to provide for his family so that they were not in need even after his death – he died when his son was 17 years old. At first, his mother was not delighted with the path her son had chosen, especially since he studied well and he generally attracted the attention of his humanities teachers with a special talent and could get a more “sensible” profession. But after graduating from the Collège Rollin, Paul said that his only interest was painting. He did not even want to hear about The School of Fine Arts; academism was not appealing to him. “If it’s a no, let it be so”, Paul Signac’s mother decided and soon she became the most ardent fan of his art.

In 1879, Paul attended the fourth exhibition of the Impressionists. It was exactly then that a 16-year-old young man who made sketches of works by Degas was thrown out by Gauguin, who declared: “Nobody copies others here!” Paul couldn’t care less. As an official course of training, he attended Emile Bin’s studio for some time, but he spoke very disparagingly about that period. However, he considered his visits to the Impressionists exhibitions and to the stores of marchands (who were very supportive of the avant-garde movement) to be very important and necessary. And five years later, an event occurred that changed the course of the world of painting. The artists rejected by the official Salon created their own independent salon. In 1908, Signac became the President of the Salon of Independent Artists...

Paul wrote the famous letter to Claude Monet in 1885. He confessed sincere admiration to the master and asked for a meeting. Unfortunately, the inspired young artist (“I came to him as to a messiah!”, Signac later said) did not make much of an impression on the great artist, whose character completely lacked characteristics of a mentor. The point was not that Signac was somehow unpleasant to him, but Monet was seriously interested only in his own painting. Therefore, other acquaintances had a key influence on Signac’s formation as an artist.

The names of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were oftentimes pronounced together. They met in 1884, and Seurat immediately enthralled his friend with the pointillism technique – a method of painting in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. That movement was also called divisionism and neo-impressionism. Seurat and Signac preferred the last version more than the other one (Signac even painted a portrait of the art critic, Felix Feneon who also coined the term “neo-impressionism”).

Unlike his more outgoing fellow painter, Georges Seurat was an introverted man and not friendly whatsoever; therefore Paul Signac was given credit for the fact that pointillism grew in popularity. Soon, even Camille Pissarro joined Neo-Impressionism for a short while, who, unlike Monet (who was keen on his own work) also tried to support young artists. Signac and Pissarro had a friendly relationship, and, subsequently, Paul even married his distant relative, Berthe Robles.

Being a true friend and admirer of Georges Seurat, Paul Signac was disarmed by the sudden, premature death of the leader of neo-impressionism. He did a lot so that Seurat would not be forgotten – he sorted out his paintings, arranged several retrospective exhibitions, and before long, wrote the treatise “From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism”. However, paying tribute to his mentor, the artist himself soon after Seurat’s death took leave of neo-impressionism. “I increasingly hate the shallow dots and dryness,” he wrote after a few years. After passing through the technique of pointillism and abandoning it, Signac gained his own style. More often than not, he continued to follow the scientific theory of the combination of contrasting colors as a way of creating light, but he replaced small dots with larger, square-like brushstrokes. However, the difference was not limited to that only. Being an emotional, sensitive and light-hearted man, Signac was unfamiliar with Seurat’s scientific, more rational approach. He said that he subordinated colors and lines to the spiritual movement that he wanted to convey, but he did not embody the scientific theory of the combination of contrasting colors.

Paul Signac bought his first sailboat in 1883 and did not call it “Seagull” or “Victory”. He named it “Manet - Zola - Wagner” which was written on the board. Paul Signac was not only an amazing painter, but he also understood and loved literature, yet it was not in vain that his humanitarian abilities were praised in his youth. Signac was friendly with many writers, and in his workshop (which was much more comfortable than most of his fellow artists’ - because he had no financial problems) poets, writers, artists used to gather together and they often stayed until the morning. During his life, Paul Signac changed 32 sailing boats. He loved travelling, and his boats did not stand still. Signac’s marinas were well known, painted not from the coast, but from the sea. Even his death found him almost on a journey - in the 72nd year of his age, almost immediately upon his return from Corsica.

Since 1882, his permanent home had been in a paradise of Saint-Tropez - Signac was very fond of the sea and could not live far away from it. He quickly began to yearn when he was in Paris.

Paul Signac wasn’t an epitome of the traditional image of a genius separated from the crowd because he was actively interested in social life. He sympathized with the Soviet regime, considered paintings created in the spirit of socialist realism to be vivid, joyful and colorful. In 1933, he even wrote a preface to the catalog of the exhibition of Soviet artists in Paris. However, his enthusiasm for socialist realism and his favor for socialism did not affect his paintings – they remained the same – bright, light and radiant, “apolitical”.

Signac had good relationships with both the Fauvists, especially Matisse and Marquet, and with the artists of the Nabi group. An amazing trait – the artist’s easy temper made even his creative process more open. Family and friends could easily visit his workshop at any time. The process of painting was not a painful strain for him, as for many of his colleagues, but a joy and a pleasant inspirational state, which turned out to be quite possible to share with others. It was not that the squabbling character was an indispensable attribute of a self-respecting artist, but such ease was still a unique phenomenon. The writer Vaillant-Couturier once said of him: “Signac loved art, humanity and the sea.” Perhaps, that was a fairly comprehensive description.

Author: Alena Esaulova