- Paul Signac
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Paul Signac

In chronicling the annuls of mankind's endeavours, very possibly the most important word in the historian's vocabulary is the word "first." Men's and women's fame and fortune often balance precariously on those five little letters. Occasionally it happens that current events bestows a "first" honour on an individual only to have it taken away many years later by an astute historian who, having dethroned one individual, then has to build up the reputation of the new "first" individual. The whole enterprise sometimes takes on a silly "who cares" aspect in retrospect, but it persists in any case. Art is no different, except that the value of various artists’ work will fluctuate with the bestowal of that precious word. Picasso is credited with "inventing" Cubism, never mind that he worked so closely with Georges Braque in doing so that their work for a time is virtually indistinguishable. Despite that, Picasso was "first." Or take the artist Georges Seurat. Art history recalls him as the first "Neo-Impressionist." Later they thought better of it and changed the designation to "Post Impressionist" and concocted the term "Pointillism" to describe his work. But nonetheless, he was "first."

Seurat's "Braque" was Paul Signac. He's listed in art history as being a "follower" of Seurat. Well, perhaps, for a time. They met at the founding of the Salon des Indépendants in 1884. Thereafter they became close friends and together developed what later came to be known as Pointillism. But Seurat died in 1891 at the age of 32. Signac lived another forty years. And so, from that time on Signac followed no one. In fact he led. Though not as well known, he joined the pack with Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh's posthumous work in defining the Post-Impressionist era. And with his pseudoscientific studies of colour, he was undoubtedly the most influential artist of his generation in sparking the colourist work of Fauvists such as Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, and Delaunay. And as president of the Salon des Independents from 1908 to 1934, he was a major figure in promoting these artists and their work.

Paul Signac was born in 1863 into the comfort of a prosperous shop-keeping family. Financial independence is very often a major factor in the development of groundbreaking artists. It means they can paint what they want rather than what others will buy. It also granted Signac the freedom not to see the need for a formal art education. Unlike Seurat, he didn't attend the Ecole des Beaux-arts. He taught himself to paint, studying the work of Monet and others before teaming with Seurat in trying to "firm up" Impressionist colour theory one paint dot at a time. Signac's work can easily be divided into two periods, that painted under the influence of Seurat, and the looser, large, "square" strokes having somewhat the effect of mosaic. Dare we call it "Squarism?" Despite this, despite forty years of independence, despite his undeniable influence on the post-Post-Impressionists, despite the pure, colourist beauty of his twentieth century works, Signac will always be seen as painting in the shadow of Seurat.

contributed by Lane, Jim

2 February 2000

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