Paul Signac: Color Science and Politics in Neo-Impressionism

The French painter Paul Signac is considered as the theorist and one of the leaders of Neo-Impressionism. Get to know more about the painter who reconciled art and science.

Jan 10, 2021By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
paul signac
Details from La Baie (Saint-Tropez) by Paul Signac, 1907; Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon (Opus 217) by Paul Signac, 1890; Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez by Paul Signac, 1893


Neo-Impressionism is often considered the first avant-garde movement in modern art. Although Georges Seurat can be regarded as the father of Neo-Impressionism, Paul Signac stepped in after Seurat’s death. He turned out to become the leader and theorist of the movement. He based his approach on color science and optical color mixing. With his work and theories, Signac greatly influenced artists of his time and other famous 20th-century artists such as Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Vincent van Gogh, or Pablo Picasso.


Paul Signac: A Leader Of Neo-Impressionism

The Dining Room (Opus 152) by Paul Signac, 1886-87, via the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo


Neo-Impressionism is an avant-garde movement coming from the evolution of Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism as a movement started in 1886, at the 8th and last Impressionist Salon. For the first time, Neo-Impressionists exhibited their work alongside Impressionists. The public could admire the innovative artworks of Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, as well as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac’s paintings. Though some well-established painters like Degas and Manet disliked Neo-Impressionists’ presence at the Salon, Camille Pissarro advocated for their work. Later, Pissarro even joined their movement.


La Baie (Saint-Tropez) by Paul Signac, 1907, via Christie’s


Two years earlier, in 1884, a group of Parisian artists founded the “Society of Independent Artists.” Following the Salon des Refusés, which gathered all artists not admitted in the Academy of Fine Arts official Salon, they organized an annual event: the “Salon des Indépendants.” Unlike the Salon des Refusés, they wanted to run an exhibition “without jury nor reward,” as their slogan stated. Artists wanted to display their work without any restriction, in stark contrast to the Academy of Fine Arts’s strict rules. Alongside Georges Seurat and other artists, Paul Signac was a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists. He became president of the society in 1908.


The painter of “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat, was the instigator of Neo-Impressionism. Yet, he died young, aged only thirty-one. After the death of its father, Neo-Impressionism went through turmoil. From 1891 onwards, Paul Signac stepped in as a leader and theorist of Neo-Impressionism. He occupied a prominent role in the movement and was not only a mere follower of Seurat. Signac contributed to the evolution and popularity of Neo-Impressionism in the early 1900s.

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Color Science: A Scientific Approach To Painting

Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez by Paul Signac, 1893, via the Carnegie Museum of Art 


Neo-Impressionism is often described as “Scientific Impressionism.” Impressionists were well aware of the science of colors’ principles, but Neo-Impressionists theorized its extensive use in art. Signac considered his work as an evolution of the Impressionists’. When he was sixteen, Signac decided to become a painter after discovering Claude Monet’s work in Paris. He even used the same paint tubes as his “guide.” Later, the two painters met and became friends, even if Monet did not like the severity of pointillism.


One of their first sources on the science of colors’ principles was the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. The scientist developed the law of “Simultaneous Contrast,” defining how the human brain perceives side-by-side colors. Pointillists built on this scientific law to paint networks of small color dots. When seen from afar and processed by the human mind, those pure-color dots blend and form color-shapes.


The Grammar of Painting and Engraving by Charles Blanc and Kate Doggett, 1874, via Smithsonian Libraries, Washington D.C.


Neo-Impressionists also studied the work of Ogden Rood, an American physicist who divided colors into three elements: luminosity, purity, and hue. He theorized the visual color blending effect induced by small side-by-side color dots seen from a distance. Both Chevreul and Rood worked on complementary colors, yet with diverging outcomes. It led to an inevitable confusion among artists as to which chromatic circle to use. Georges Seurat used both in his paintings.


Neo-Impressionists used a scientific approach to their art, yet color theories did not enslave them. They built on research results to develop their artistic theories of color. The main feature of their artistic view lies in the optical mixing of colors. Side-by-side dots of two colors, mixed in a certain way, will form in the viewer’s eye a third color that is not present on the canvas.


Pointillism Or Divisionism?

Blessing of the Tuna Fleet at Groix by Paul Signac, 1923, via the Minneapolis Institute of Art


Paul Signac stood against the reduction of Neo-Impressionism to pointillism alone. For Signac, the essential element of this artistic movement is “division.” Pointillism consists in the use of small color dots and mainly focuses on the brushstroke’s technique. On the other hand, divisionism, also called chromoluminarism, incorporates pointillism and other methods like side-by-side color brushstrokes or squares. Divisionism focuses more on theories than on the technique.


Neo-Impressionism does not only merely involve the juxtaposition of color dots or brushstrokes. These should be organized and combined according to the contrast of complementary colors. By using contrasting colors, painters can intensify the final effect. Colors vibrate even more than in the Impressionists’ work.


Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon (Opus 217) by Paul Signac, 1890, via MoMA, New York


The painting’s brightness also makes an essential aspect of Neo-Impressionism. Following Rood’s theories, for the human eye, two side-by-side colors on a moving prop give a brighter effect than a single mixed color on the same moving prop. Neo-Impressionists had a fascination for sunlight and “additive color,” that is, the addition of colored beams of light resulting in white light. Signac favored mixed lights over mixed pigments. 


Following these scientific discoveries, Neo-Impressionists achieved the transposition of vibrant colors in their painting. Advocates for divisionism claimed that these paintings were brighter or purer because the human eye mixed the colors and not the artist’s brush. Detractors said that these paintings lacked proper shapes and concrete elements. With the use of color science, they believed artists lost their creativity. They claimed that all divisionist paintings looked the same.


Signac And Anarchism: The Pursuit Of Harmony

In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Has Not Passed, It Is Still To Come by Paul Signac, 1893-95, via Montreuil City Hall


Neo-Impressionism is strongly linked to political ideas, especially anarchism. From 1888 onwards, Signac embraced anarchists’ thoughts, and so did Camille Pissarro and his son Lucien. Seurat and Signac counted Félix Fénéon among their friends. The influential French art critic and journalist favored anarchist ideas. He also was an eminent member of the symbolist movement. Fénéon was the biggest supporter of Neo-Impressionism and invented the movement’s name.


Between 1893-95, Signac painted “In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Has Not Passed, It Is Still to Come.” In this large oil on canvas (122” x 161”), Signac portrayed a harmonious society reconciling work and leisure, as well as culture and nature. Harmony occupied a central position in anarchist theories. They believed harmony played a key role in uniting individualism and social life’s imperatives. Chromatic harmony in painting stands as a social metaphor, so does the technique itself of pointillism or divisionism. Individualized color dots, standing side-by-side, form a harmonious ensemble when seen from a distance.


Saint-Tropez: A Hotspot For Modern Artists

The Port of Saint-Tropez by Paul Signac, 1901-02, in the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, via Google Arts & Culture


In the early 1890s, Signac discovered the South of France and what was at the time a picturesque harbor on the Mediterranean coast: Saint-Tropez. In a letter addressed to his mother, Paul marveled about what he considered the world’s 8th wonder. According to Signac, the ochre colors of the houses’ walls are worth just as much as Roman villas’ colors. The Mediterranean coast became his first source of inspiration, where he painted many landscapes. He considered the “pure colors” and the light as “perfect.” This perfect mix represented an ideal illustration of the harmony he sought, a great representation of anarchist’s ideas in his eyes.


Luxury, Peace and Pleasure by Henri Matisse, 1904, in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Signac relocated to Saint-Tropez, where he spent twenty years. At first, he stayed in a shed near the beach. In 1897, Paul bought the sea-facing Villa La Hune, which became the hub for Neo-Impressionists. Signac’s friends, among them Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, stayed in the villa and worked in the painting studio located on the first floor. Soon, several paintings of Saint-Tropez were exhibited in the Parisian salons. The French capital city’s public marveled at the exquisite Mediterranean harbor, which became a real artistic hotspot. Signac left Saint-Tropez when the small town became too fashionable for his taste. Today, the Villa La Hune still belongs to his heirs.


Signac did not only enjoy the Mediterranean sea as a source of inspiration for his work. He was also an experienced sailor and participated in several regattas. Signac painted numerous sailing boats and owned as many as 32 boats during his lifetime.


Paul Signac: Theorist Of The First Avant-Garde Movement

Capo di Noli by Paul Signac, 1898, via the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne


In 1899, Signac published a book called “D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme,” which can be translated into “From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism.” This publication is still today the best-written source to understand the avant-garde movement. 


Signac advocated for the legitimacy of Neo-Impressionism. After Seurat’s death in 1891, the critics questioned the artistic movement, and Signac campaigned in its favor. He presented Neo-Impressionists as the heirs of Delacroix, the father of colorists. In his reflection, he positioned the Impressionists as intermediaries between Delacroix and the Neo-Impressionists. For Signac, the design of art is to make a representation as colorful and bright as possible. Despite the poor reception when first published, Signac’s book was soon translated into German.


Little House in Sunlight by Piet Mondrian, 1909-10, in Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, Margate


Neo-Impressionism became more and more popular from the 1900s onwards. In the 1901 Salon des Indépendants held in the Grand-Palais in Paris, critics admired their works. They paid much attention to Signac’s and other Neo-Impressionists’ paintings and wrote favorable reviews about them. Signac received particular praises. Initially accused of using a scientific approach to painting and losing the creative side of art, Signac was ultimately recognized as a true artist. Reviewers acknowledged that Neo-Impressionism permitted individualized and imaginative work. Signac became the painter who reconciled art and science.


Signac’s publication and work greatly influenced not only artists of his generation but also 20th-century painters. Many modern artists such as Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian went through a Neo-Impressionist phase in their career. Although lasting only for a short time (1886 – early 1900s), Neo-Impressionism represents one of the first avant-garde artistic movements; Paul Signac was its foremost theorist and one of its leaders.


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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.