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Paul Signac: Paintings & Biography

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Could you create a picture simply by using many dots of bright color? How would your eye react to such an image? In this lesson, learn about the life and colorful art of French artist Paul Signac, who is famous for such creations.

Early Life and Pursuit of Art

Paul Signac (1863 - 1935) was born in Paris to a middle-class family. As a boy, he loved drawing and sketching, but his parents wanted him to pursue a lucrative career field. Bending to family wishes, as a young man he attended school for architecture.

However, Signac never lost his interest in art. In 1880, he attended an exhibition of Claude Monet's Impressionist work and was struck by the color. Although still in college, then and there he decided to become an artist. Signac dropped out of school and took up painting lessons. At first he experimented with the style for which Monet was famous, Impressionism, with its emphasis on spontaneous loose brushstrokes, bright colors and focus on the effects of natural light.

Development of Pointillism

In 1884, Signac met Georges Seurat, another French artist whose work he admired; particularly a large canvas titled Bathers at Asnières. In Bathers, Seurat used color theory, or the study of how color is perceived, to apply paint to canvas in new ways. The style came to be known as Pointillism or Divisionism.

In Pointillism, the artist repeats dot or dabs of bright color, very close together, to create an image. The technique depends on the eye mixing the color optically to form shapes. The image emerges as the viewer stands back from the canvas. Closely related, Divisionism is a bit more scientifically focused but also involves dots of color. Sometimes you'll see the terms used interchangeably, with Pointillism referring to the technique of color dots and Divisionism referring to the science of optics and perception of the color dots.

Seurat and Signac became friends and colleagues; that same year (1884) they founded the Salon des Indépendants, a group of independent artists who held periodic exhibits of work for anyone who wanted to participate, in response to the staid expectations of academic painting at the time, which followed rules about proper subject matter and proper ways to paint. Inspired by Seurat, Signac began working in a Pointillist style.

Sometimes you'll see Seurat, Signac and others in their group referred to as a Neo-Impressionists because they took the Impressionists' ideas but then moved beyond them, away from spontaneity toward an exacting application of color. All the colored dots, called the mélange optic, or optical mix, would create a particularly vibrant canvas. Or, to quote Signac: 'the separate elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights.'

Now, let's look at one of Signac's most famous paintings, Portrait of Félix Fénélon.

Paul Signac, Portrait of Felix Fenelon, 1890
Felix Fenelon

In Portrait of Félix Fénélon, an absolute swirling riot of colors surrounds the figure of Fénélon, who was an art dealer in Paris. In fact, it was Fénélon who coined the term Neo-Impressionists. In his portrait, each of those color bands, some of which shift almost imperceptible from light to dark, are made of tiny dots of paint. Each dot is placed purposely to vary in tone and shade. It's many, many dots that create the colorful effect you see.

Later Years

Sadly, Seurat died in 1891 when he was only in his early 30s, and Signac became Pointillism's champion and advocate. He continued to paint and also write about art in essays and books, including Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, written in 1899. Also an avid sailor, he often worked seascapes into his paintings. Here's a later example of Signac's work, titled Capo di Noli (1898).

Paul Signac, Capo di Noli, 1898
Capo di Noli

Here, the image of landscape and seascape with sailboats in the harbor shimmers with color. The dots are slightly larger, and you can see how their placement, as well as variation in color, creates the effect of light and shadow.

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