Focus: Paul Signac

Sailing Boats at Groix

When thinking about Post-Impressionism, Paul Signac is one of the names that immediately spring to mind among artists like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Together with George Seurat, he is considered the founder of Pointillism. This piece depicting Sailing Boats at Groix fetched £20,000 (premium inclusive) in April 2014.

Born in Paris, he studied architecture. It was only after visiting Monet’s exhibition in 1880 that he decided to pursue a career as an outdoor painter. At first, his style still followed the orthodox influence of the Impressionist master. However, the encounter with George Seurat in 1884 marked a radical turning point in Signac’s artistic career. He was deeply fascinated by Seurat’s rigorous theory of colour division, so much in opposition with the instinctive approach of the Impressionists. The two started experimenting together on a new conception of paint according to which scientifically juxtaposed small dots of pure colour were to be used directly on canvas; it was then in the viewer’s eye – not on the surface – that these dots would combine and blend in a sensible image. Under Seurat’s influence, Signac abandoned the short brushstrokes legacy of Monet and Corot and fully adopted this Pointillism style, of which he became the major spokesman after Seurat’s death in 1891.

In over 50 years of artistic career Signac experimented with various media, from etchings and lithographs, to pen-and-ink sketches. However, it is his oils and watercolours that made him the celebrated artist he still is now. A fine painter of human figures and still lifes, Signac is most remembered for his vibrant landscapes of the Mediterranean coasts and its ports which he assiduously visited during many sailing trips on his beloved boat from St. Tropez, where he had a summer house, to Holland and Constantinople. It was during one of these travels that he discovered the great freedom of expression of watercolours. This medium allowed him to register his immediate impressions of the seascape and its vibrant colours with rapid sketches and colourful pointillist dots that he later elaborated in proper large studio oils. From 1899 till his death Signac never stop sailing along the Mediterranean ports, producing a considerable body of extraordinary luminous watercolours that have gained as much importance as his oils.

From 1921 to 1924 he moved to Brittany, along the Atlantic coast of France, where he developed an interest for lighthouses and tuna boats. Groix, with its blue and white lighthouse, was a frequent landing port. A famous oil now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York depicts the same port view of the watercolour presented in this auction. Signac’s correspondence of these years reports of a small number of watercolours he painted in the French port. It is probable that this watercolour is part of the group mentioned in the letters and that they all served as models for the big Metropolitan oil. With its lively charcoal lines and its small, mosaic-like intense squares of colour, Sailing Boats, Groix is an exquisite example of Signac’s skilful and multi-faceted art. Over the years Signac’s innovative technique had a profound influence on many artists like André Derain and Henri Matisse, who in 1904 was working with the painter in St. Tropez, and inspired movements like the Futurism and Cubism.


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