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Paul Signac was born in Paris in 1863 into a well to do bourgeois family. Both his father and grandfather had prospered in the luxury saddlery business and could boast of having the emperor Napoleon III as a client. The family soon moved from the Bourse district to the rue Frochot in Montmartre, a private street known for the famous stage celebrities and artists who lived and worked there.
The neighborhood in which Paul Signac grew up lent itself well to nurturing a vocation in the arts, and as an only child he enjoyed the support of his liberal parents. As an adolescent, Signac was attracted by Impressionist paintings in gallery windows and went to the exhibitions held by the painters, then considered revolutionaries. In 1880, at the age of sixteen, he was thrown out of the fifth Impressionist exhibition by Gauguin for making a sketch after a picture by Degas and was told disdainfully that "one does not copy here, Sir."
During the same year Signac suffered the great loss of his otherwise happy childhood: his affectionate and attentive father, Jules Signac, died of tuberculosis in Menton. His mother, Heloise Signac, and his grandfather sold the business and moved to Asnieres, a new residential suburb of Parts. Although a good student, Paul Signac left school and rented a room in Montmartre, dividing his time henceforth between the city and Asnieres.
The windows of the Signac house in Asnieres looked out on a garden, the Seine, and the smokestacks of the factories in Clichy. This heterogeneous landscape appears clearly in an aerial photograph taken by Commander Fribourg in 1885. The two bridges at Asnieres - railroad and the roadway - connected two completely different worlds: on one side was the residential section with its houses and gardens, and on the other were the factories, coal cranes, and gas tanks of Clichy. The aerial view also shows the new marinas upstream and the tip of the island of La Grande Jatte.
The banks of the Seine were to inspire many paintings, drawings, and watercolors by the young painter, but his earliest joy there was boating. His first boat was a canoe that he christened Manet Zola Wagner, a name expressing his youthful enthusiasm for modernity and artistic independence, as well as his indecisiveness over his own vocation. A career in music was, however, out of the question; Wagner's name was intended only as a provocation. With the exception of a few songs sung with his cabaret friends at the Chat Noir, which he began frequenting regularly in 1881, Signac never manifested any musical ambitions and in his later years preferred the Three Penny Opera to more sophisticated works. His choice was between painting and literature.
Through his childhood friend Charles Torquer, Signac soon came into contact with literary circles, meeting the Naturalist writers at the Brasserie Gambrinus and evening gatherings at Robert Caze's home. In this way he met Paul Adam, Jean Ajalbert, Joris Karl Huysmans, and Paul Alexis. He also became the friend of the critics Felix Feneon and Gustave Kahn. These writers were later to become staunch supporters of Neo Impressionism. In 1882, Signac wrote pastiches satirizing the ponderousness of Zola's style, though he had been an admirer of it shortly before. Within a few years he assembled an impressive library of luxuriously bound books by Naturalist and Symbolist authors. Signac never lost his fondness for literature, and his correspondence and writings show that he had a sharp, concise, and lively style of his own. The incident with Gauguin notwithstanding, the young Signac continued to visit avant garde exhibitions, and this activity ultimately led to his choice of vocation.
Signac later said that the paintings of Claude Monet at the June 1880 exhibition in the offices of La Vie moderne led him to opt for the career of a painter. He chose to be an Impressionist painter because of his liking for Monet, the outdoors, novelty, and independence. His first works date from the winter of 1881-82, when he was barely eighteen. Except for a brief stint at the "free studio" run by Emile Bin, he had no formal art instruction but devoted himself to the study of the works of Manet, Monet, Degas, and Caillebotte. As early as 1882 he produced his first series of brightly colored, rapidly painted studies. He tried his hand at the human figure and had his friends and young companion, Berthe Robles pose for him. His initial pictures display the mistakes and difficulties of the youthful autodidact, as we see in the curious lost profile and back devoid of volume in the portrait of Charles Torquer. Yet there were also some triumphs, like the still life in the same portrait. His first landscape efforts were more successful. He chose for his subjects the sites that were most familiar to him: the Seine, Montmartre, Clichy, Asnieres. In the summer he left Paris and traveled to Port en Bessin or Saint Briac and painted on the seacoast, like so many other painters. His Road to Gennevilliers from 1883 shows a precocious mastery of composition and lighting. It demonstrates that Signac was already familiar with the laws of color contrast established by Chevreul.
The Monet exhibition of March 1883 in the Boulevard de la Madeleine had a direct influence on the studies painted by Signac at Port en Bessin the following summer. By this time Signac was painting quite acceptable Impressionist works. He had learned very quickly, even though his paintings still reflected his many sources: Monet, of course, in his seascapes and outdoor scenes, but also Caillebotte, whose compositions he sometimes quoted directly. His early production displays two characteristics that were to mark his work as a whole: a pronounced taste for frontal, geometric compositions with little perspectival depth and an unmistakable fondness for color.
In 1884 Signac participated in the first Salon des Artistes Independants. There he met Georges Seurat, who showed his Bathers at Asnieres, which had been rejected by the official Salon, as well as his future Neo Impressionist comrades: Charles Angrand, Henri Edmond Cross, and Albert Dubois Pillet. Then came his first meetings with two painters he admired very much: he met Armand Guillaumin on the quays of the Seine shortly after the 1884 exhibition and Camille Pissarro in the following year. Both helped him with advice and influenced his current work more directly than had Seurat, whose impact was not yet apparent in his paintings. This was not the case with his drawings, however. By 1885, Signac had begun to try his hand at drawing with Conte crayon and produced works that clearly point to those of Seurat.
In 1884 Seurat had started work on a large-format painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but without using the divisionist technique. As noted, Signac had an interest in Chevreul's color theories and his "masters" were still the Impressionists. He regularly met with Seurat; both painters admired Delacroix and read Charles Blanc's Grammaire des arts et du dessin, as well as the optical treatises of David Sutter and Ogden Rood. Both paid a visit to Chevreul. In August 1885 Charles Henry published his "Introduction A une esthetique scientifique," which argued for an art based on scientific principles.
As a result of Henry's study of perception, Seurat started using his technique of "optical mixture." In October-November 1885 he applied tiny dots of pure color, which, it was thought, the spectator's eye would recompose at a distance. Signac's interest in color is generally recognized as having contributed to this discovery, and the young Impressionist painter probably stimulated his friend's own interest in this area. Nevertheless Seurat remains the inventor of the divisionist technique, a fact he stressed on a number of occasions, although Signac never called his precedence into question. Seurat began using Divisionism in fall 1885 in his Parisian studio when he reworked the paintings he had done in Grandcamp during the summer. A Sunda Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which, according to Seurat, was ready for exhibition in March 1885, was completely reworked in November to give it a pointillist appearance.
By December the future Neo Impressionists were the talk of the ateliers. Guillaumin wrote to Pissarro: "Not knowing or practically not knowing what Seurat and Signac were doing, Degas must have been a bit worried by what he heard."" Preparations for the eighth and last exhibition of the Impressionists were under way. Ultimately both Seurat and Signac were represented despite the initial opposition of Degas and Eugene Manet, the painter's brother and the husband of Berthe Morisot.
Also in December 1885 Signac undertook his first major interior scene, The Milliners. In it he depicted a world which he had come to know through Berthe Robles, who was herself a milliner and who posed for the figure on the left, bending to pick up her scissors. The painting, exhibited in May 1886 with the title Appreteuse et garnisseuse Modes (rue du Caire) (Finisher and trimmer. Millinery [rue du Carte]), shows a milliner's workshop in the Sentier quartier, which is still the garment district of Paris. The precise descriptions "finisher" and "trimmer" show that Signac proceeded in the same way as his friends the Naturalist writers - Huysmans, for example, described a dressmaker's shop in Les Soeurs Vatard - informing himself about the trade and its terminology.
Signac knew these milliners and was able to observe their habitual gestures and activities, as Degas had done before him with ballet dancers and laundresses, as well as milliners (depicting the last as early as 1882). Several years later Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, probably informed by Signac himself, pointed out that The Milliners was painted in the same color harmony as Delacroix's Women of Algiers, a fact that had gone unnoticed by the critics of 1886. And yet Delacroix had been in the news in 1885, when Signac began painting this scene: a major exhibition of his paintings was held at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in March-April, and Alfred Robaut's first catalogue raisonne of his paintings, drawings, and graphic work also appeared in that year. Indeed, the blue and red of the dress of the black servant in Women of Algiers reappear in the figure on the left in Signac's painting. The rich tonality comes from the use of a wide range of pure colors and a fondness for red and yellow, as in the Delacroix. In both paintings the white in the center lightens the other colors. Nor is the subject matter as different from Delacroix's as one might think. The artist chose to evoke a closed, feminine world in this Naturalist harem, the Parisian version of Women of Algiers transposed to the workshops of the rue du Caire. Yet Signac's painting is as devoid of literary allusions as it is of the sensuality of his Romantic predecessor.
In painting his first major scene with figures, he adopted the objective detachment of a scientific observer. As noted previously, it is difficult for a self taught painter to place figures into a setting effectively, and Signac was no exception.
His depiction of space is extremely shallow and the simplified shapes are radically geometrized. He also emphasized the formal qualities of the accessories: conical hats, cylindrical bobbins, reels of satin or taffeta ribbon, on the floor ties a remnant of ribbon; rolls of protective paper form pale arabesques, and a hatbox is blazoned with the house label.
The picture was supposed to be radically modern yet was not done in the divisionist technique from the beginning. Signac reworked this 1885 painting very likely in February 1886, as Seurat hinted in a letter to Mix Feneon "Signac, definitively won over. . . , had just modified The Milliners following my technique at the same time as I was finishing the Jatte." Signac added dabs of pure color over the originally broadly painted surface to produce the desired divided effect. Its genesis in two stages is probably responsible for the painting's present fragility, which prevents it from traveling.
In the meantime Camille Pissarro also adopted the novel technique in January-February 1886. Signac painted his first divisionist canvases at Asnieres in the spring of that year: The Junction at Bois Colombes, The Gas Tanks at Clichy, and Passage du Puits Bertin, Clichy. Neo Impressionism was born. Signac recognized his friend's genius from the start and "benefited from [his] researches," as Seurat himself pointed out. This "exact technique" permitted him to give color a predominant role, and he remained faithful to it to the end.
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