Paul Signac: Palais des Papes, Avignon - 1909
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
At the tender age of seventeen Paul Signac dropped out of school and immersed himself in the avant-garde life of Montmartre where his family had been living. He soon came into contact with the literary and artistic circles that frequented this hedonistic area of belle époque Paris. Painting emerged as his passion and Signac later cited an exhibition of paintings by Monet in 1880 at La Vie Moderne as the inspiration for his choice of vocation. Consigned by some to the footnotes of history as a mere follower of the great Seurat, noteworthy only because of his many friendships with celebrated artists, his tireless promotion of the Neo-Impressionist cause and his involvement in radical politics, Paul Signac in fact produced a substantial body of brilliantly expressive work. But it was undoubtedly his meeting with Georges Seurat during the inaugural Salon des Indépendants in 1884 which was the defining moment of his artistic career. In many ways they were opposites – the genial, extrovert but occasionally abrasive, mainly self-taught Signac and the aloof, Beaux-Arts trained Seurat. However Seurat’s academic background and experience proved to be an inspiration for Signac who was seduced by the older painter’s rigorous theories, in many ways the antithesis of the spontaneous, instinctive approach of the Impressionists from whom Signac had previously taken his lead. Signac and Seurat worked together to develop Seurat’s technique in which tiny dots of pure colour were juxtaposed in order that the viewer’s eye would, at a distance, fuse them to ‘see’ another colour. It was Signac’s friend, the anarchist writer and art critic Felix Fénéon (the subject of a most striking portrait by Signac now in New York) who, in 1886, coined the phrase Neo-Impressionism to distinguish this new approach from the earlier generation of Impressionists, and it was Fénéon who wittily observed that Signac had become the Claude Lorrain of Neo-Impressionism to Seurat’s Poussin.
Signac’s style developed over time from the closely structured pointillism of the late 1880s and early 1890s, to a freer divisionist technique employing larger brushstrokes to achieve a shimmering, shifting, mesmeric surface. Palais des Papes, Avignon is the product of this later style, possibly one of a number of paintings completed in 1909 (scholars differ as to the date of execution) depicting famous buildings seen from the sea or adjoining river (the others included views of Genoa, Venice and Istanbul). Part of a longer term project depicting famous ports (visited on cruises in his yacht – he was a very keen sailor), this was the first of Signac’s oil paintings to be purchased by the state, entering the French national collection in 1912. Two versions of the scene exist, one shows the château just after dawn, but this painting gives us a dazzling evocation of evening light playing on the venerable residence of the Avignon popes. Unlike early pointillist output which used small points of paint, here Signac’s brush strokes have become much larger giving a more fractured surface, each stroke like the tesserae of the ancient mosaics he greatly admired. But the picture is nevertheless underpinned by the theories of Neo-Impressionism, the careful arrangement of complementary colour creating a scintillating luminosity.
It was Signac and his friend and fellow ‘Neo’ Henri Edmond Cross who popularised the little port of St Tropez by settling there in the early 1890s. Signac welcomed a number of artists to his house there including Henri Matisse who, after his visit to St Tropez in 1904 produced his enchanting divisionist masterpiece Luxe, calme et volupté. Matisse’s involvement with Neo-Impressionism was short but it proved to be a vital stepping stone in his journey towards Fauvism and beyond. Signac remained loyal to the tenets of Neo-Impressionism for the rest of his life.
Image: Wikimedia Commons