Paul Signac (1863-1935) was the son of a prosperous Paris shopkeeper. He attended secondary school at the Collège Rollin, but dropped out after the death of his father in 1880 and the relocation of the family to Asnières. He attended literary meetings at the Chat Noir cabaret, visited Impressionist exhibitions, and enrolled in the private art studio of Jean-Baptiste-Émile Bin, but for the most part taught himself to paint. In 1882 Signac rented his first studio in Montmartre (Paris), and painted in an impressionist style after Monet. He met Père Tanguy, the art merchant and collector of Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, and in 1884 bought a Cézanne oil of the Oise Valley that he kept for the rest of his life. In 1885 he met future neo-impressionist painters, including Georges Seurat (1859-1891), and also became close friends with Cézanne's supporter Camille Pissaro (1830-1903). These influences led Signac to paint his first "divisionist" canvases in 1886, the year he exhibited alongside Seurat and Pissaro at the last Impressionist exhibition. (He first exhibited in the Salon des Indépendents in 1884, and contributed each year thereafter until he was elected president of the selection committee in 1908.) He painted his first watercolors during a visit to St. Tropez in 1892, and renounced plein air oil painting in 1894, thereafter using only pencil, charcoal or watercolors in the field. After the death of Seurat in 1891, Signac became the leader of the neo-impressionist movement, and in 1899 he published D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme, a manifesto and defense of neo-impressionist ideas. Yet despite his rising influence, he did not mount his first solo exhibition until 1902, in Paris. His travels abroad were limited to a tour of Italy in 1890, two trips to Venice (1904 and 1908), and two visits to London (1902 and 1909). He painted a series of Paris bridges during the flooding of the Seine in 1910. An ardent pacifist and doctrinaire communist, Signac moved to the French Antibes in 1913 with his partner, Jeanne Selmersheim-Desgrange, who gave birth to a daughter; they remained there through the end of World War I. After the war he resumed traveling and painting watercolors in France, and exerted a significant influence on the painter and sculptor Henri Matisse. Signac published a monograph on the painter Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891) that is actually a treatise on watercolor painting. He moved to St.-Paul-de-Vence in 1921, then Viviers (1924), before buying a house in Barfleur (Normandy) in 1932. Soon after, in 1935, he discovered Corsica, only to die there of septicemia at age 72.



Let's start with Signac's color world. His watercolors are characteristically transparent, brilliant and sparkling, as if made of glass: the saturation of pure colors and the flashing slivers of pristine white paper form the unique alchemy of his light. He used a traveling metal palette containing a dozen or so paints: cadmium yellow deep, naples yellow, cadmium orange (after c.1910), vermilion, cadmium red (after c.1915), rose madder, french ultramarine, prussian blue, cobalt green, sap green, burnt sienna, vandyke brown, payne's gray, and chinese white. He mostly worked on white, laid (lightly textured) sketchbook paper, though he used rough or tinted papers on occasion. And his technique emphasized pure color using the most intense pigments then available: the "hot" cadmium reds, oranges and yellows, and the "cool" ultramarine blue and rose madder. In his oil paintings Signac built the images out of tiny, homogeneously rectangular touches of paint (a "divisionist" approach, adopted from Cézanne's mid career canvases, that is akin to Seurat's pointilliste method but with fatter dots). What is striking then about watercolors such as Juan-les-Pins (1914, 44x41cm) is their continuity with Signac's earlier, looser brush style, in imitation of Monet; the brush touches are always more freely varied and larger, which gives the watercolors a greater feeling of spontaneity, animation and air. The color patches are also more descriptive, irregular or oval shaped, often drawn out in the direction of surface contours or lines of flow, and decreasing in size for interior details and distant objects. Colors are modulated by laying touches of pure paint side by side, or overlapping slightly, and only rarely by mixing colors on the palette or wet in wet on the page. Finally, Signac builds the value structure of his paintings predominantly around the warm/cool color contrast: brilliant warm oranges and yellows are silhouetted against dull, cool dark blues and greens, with tints of pure rose and blue violet used to convey the distant landscape or light in the wooded shadows.

Signac's style after 1900 was influenced by Jongkind's heavily sketched watercolors. Signac mastered a kind of decorative visual analysis that used assertive line drawings in soft lead pencil or charcoal as the framework for pure color areas, loosely but descriptively applied. He also found that he liked to work in series, and one of his notable early groups of watercolors shows the many different bridges spanning the Seine in Paris. Le Pont des Arts (1910; 21x26cm) was first coarsely sketched with extravert energy, varying the thickness and spacing of lines to contrast the steel of the bridge, the stone of the quays, the branches of trees and the profile of distant buildings. Signac allows the drawing to stand clearly on the page: color and line partner to create form, texture and value. The warmer colors have been held mostly to tints, with yellow as the principal (almost the only) warm hue. Signac conveys the mass and straddle of the bridge by preserving a warm, crisp value contrast within its arches (note the touches of near orange), and this lets him play the flat top of the bridge against the darker and complex broken patterns of the distant trees. Notice how he uses both dense charcoal line (sometimes blurred with a brush and water) and broken touches of green or payne's gray to state the darkest value contrasts; his transparent technique lets him easily distinguish the foreground gate from the watery reflections even though line and paint are almost the same value. He is able to model the trees with calligraphic strokes of pure color that suggest at the same time mass, silhouette and the flutter of leafy reflections. The charming touch of light violet over the squiggled cloud surprisingly justifies the white (or barely tinted) paper as an area of sky, and lights up the complementary yellow tints in the trees. Seeming at first glance to be a casual effort, study uncovers the many strategies that Signac developed to strongly integrate line with color and produce a gratifying unity of design.

Probably Signac's most famous series is the set of watercolors painted of the ports around the French coasts, from Dunkerque to Brest, down to Bayonne and across the Mediterranean from Port Vendres to Monaco. Signac loved the sea and loved painting outdoors, and this was a commission which he solicited from his longtime friend and patron, Paul Lévy, and that occupied him happily from 1929-31. The range in these paintings is delightful; each is adapted to the mood and moment of the setting, yet they are joined by a strong unity of style. Paimpol, le Port (1930; 21x27cm) shows him using tinted paper to capture the hot light of a summer afternoon. In this painting the pencil is dominant, and is even used to suggest the texture of the sky — in this context perfectly logical, because a blue wash over yellow would appear greenish and a violet wash would appear brown, and because the thin grainy textures suggest a shimmer of dark heat rising through seaside air. Opaque chinese white has been used for the whites of clouds, haze along the horizon, boat hulls and reflections in the water; by concentrating these whites in the righthand side of the painting, he creates an illusion of bright light that converges on the sun (the loose circle at the top of the page). Touches of orange, sienna, rose and payne's gray outline the roof tops and waterlines of the boats, and depth is conveyed by contrast in the weight of line (from bold foreground ship to lightly traced buildings). Across the series, Signac varied the four elements we've identified — paper, line, color and brushstroke — to evoke a broad range of local atmospheres and artistic moods. Although Signac became the leader of the analytic Neo-Impressionist movement, and kept to an austere painting style in his oils, he was able to combine paper, color and line with a lyrical spontaneity.

Signac's cachet has increased significantly over the past few years, at least to judge by the recent exhibitions of his works. A delightful overview of his career and complete works is available in the gorgeous catalog to the 2001 New York MOMA exhibition, Signac 1863-1935 by Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon, Anne Distel, John Leighton & and Susan Stein (Yale University Press, 2001). Also useful is the catalog to the first exhibition of Signac's watercolors and drawings: Paul Signac: A Collection of Watercolors and Drawings by Marina Bocquillon, Charles Cachin & Townsend Wolfe (Harry Abrams, 2000). Joseph Skrapits provides an excellent survey of the watercolors held by the Arkansas Art Center in Watercolor (Summer, 2000). See also the modernized signac palette in the section on Palette Paintings.