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Monday, April 16, 2012

Paul Signac

Portrait of Paul Signac, 1890, George Seurat
In chronicling the annuls of mankind's endeavors, very possibly the most important word in the historian's vocabulary is the word "first." Men's and women's fame and fortune often balances precariously on those five little letters. Occasionally it happens that current events bestows a "first" honor 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 for example. 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."

Road to Gennevilliers, 1883, Paul Signac, an impressionist effort
before he came under the influence of Georges Seurat.
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 Independents in 1884. Thereafter they became close friends and together developed what later came to be know as Pointillism. But Seurat died in 1891 at the age of 32. Signac lived another forty years. And so, from that time on Seurat followed no one. In fact he led. Though not as well known, he led the pack with Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh's posthumous work in defining the Postimpressionist era. And with his pseudo-scientific studies of color, he was undoubtedly the most influential artists of his generation in sparking the colorist 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.

Portrait of Felix Feneon, 1890, Paul Signac's Pointillism, one of his most famous works.
Paul Signac was born in 1863 into the comfort of a prosperous shopkeeping 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 color 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 lit "Squareism?" Despite this, despite his undeniable influence on the post-Postimpressionists, despite the pure, colorist beauty of his twentieth century works, Signac will always be seen as painting in the shadow of Seurat. It's not fair. People who come in second don't get no respect.
The Grand Canal, 1905, Paul Signac, no longer dots but dashes of color.

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