23 Chapter 10 – Paul Signac

Post-Impressionism

Makayla Bernier

Audio recording of chapter available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wHTpYeWQAPht_KBmcAZr-jbO9C9vnKP2/view?usp=sharing


Paul Signac, In the Time of Harmony: the Golden Age is not in the Past, it is in the Future, oil on canvas, 1893–95

Paul Signac (1863-1935) was a French painter who was one of the leading figures of Neo-Impressionism.[1] Alongside other artists of the century, including Georges Seurat, Signac helped create the art ideals of the Neo-Impressionist era. Neo-Impressionism was an art movement of the 19th century, which focused on French paintings and the improvement of Impressionism through a systematic approach of form and color, which led to the development of the pointillist technique.[2] Signac used this technique, and many others within his art. Throughout his career, Signac was publicly open about his political views. His art often reflected his political opinions, which was anarchism, and this was included within his art to spread his message and opinions to the art population. Signac’s art expressed his anarchist views, and followed a certain aesthetic, all with its own reasoning.

Signac’s art was based on aesthetic harmony. It revolved around mingling aspects of Neo-Impressionism, science, and anarchism. When he was working on his art pieces, all three of these aspects played a role in the development of his pieces, which made them unique, and his own piece of work. His process was a “technical and stylistic” one in order to ensure it revolved around his ideals.[3] His goal in revolving his art around his ideals was to “create visual harmony through the application of paint according to certain scientific principles.”[4] By creating art around scientific principles, Signac was able to make art pieces that turned out more vivid and real. His paintings created pictures that involved “fields of color that, while always appearing finely divided to the eye, nevertheless emerge[d] as unified and harmonious in the final analysis.”[5]All while making his art pieces aesthetically pleasing, he ensured it was socially significant to his political ideals of anarchism. The Neo-Impressionist artists, Signac included, did not want to resort to aggressive behaviour to exploit their beliefs, and so they used their art to express themselves and their ideals instead. The way in which Signac used his art to express himself was by using “strongly accentuated brush strokes” in order to form harmony in the picture as a whole.[6] By including this technique in his art, Signac “paralleled the individualistic yet communal spirit of communist-anarchism,” which is what he was fighting against.[7] He was able to provide his political beliefs in his art to fight for change, rather than become aggressive for change. Through looking at the science aspect of the art, it was believed by Signac, and other anarchist artists, that by “[creating] paintings infused with a scientific aesthetic that they imagined possessed the power to promote in a viewer the condition of moral harmony, and presumably through it the possibility of social harmony as well,” and exemplifies exactly what Signac was fighting for in his art.[8] The aesthetic harmony of the art was also seen in the explicit deployment of two systems that worked together. The deployment of “divisionism and decorative pattern” of the art allowed Signac to hope he could “initiate contemporary viewers into the aesthetic and social harmony of an anarcho communist future”.[9] Signac’s approach to his art allowed him to get his political message across to the population who viewed his art, and gave him the chance to fight for his beliefs in a peaceful way. His work, as said by Signac himself, “includes a general harmony and a moral harmony” due to its “constant observation of contrast, its rational composition, and its aesthetic language of colors.”[10]

Paul Signac, Le Demolisseur, oil on canvas, 1897-1899

One of the important pieces painted by Signac was Le Démolisseur. By looking at this piece in depth, we can come to understand how Signac represented his political thoughts into his art. This piece was painted between 1897 and 1899. The analysis of this piece allows the viewers to understand “Signac’s creative and intellectual development” and “gives a sense of the complexities and ragged conceptual edges of the interaction between Neo-Impressionism and anarchism.”[11] Le Démolisseur is “undoubtedly to be interpreted as the worker demolishing the capitalist state”.[12] Neo-Impressionism is not a one way street, different artists of the time saw it and interpreted it in their own ways. But for Signac, it “involved an interlocking network of values” which were demonstrated by the techniques that were “innovative, scientific and rational.”[13] Even with the terrorism that unfolded in the early 1890s, Signac’s position was almost certainly against terror, and this left him to advocate his political ideals through his art.[14] Through his development as an artist, Signac created the painting Le Démolisseur. This piece of art exemplifies Signac’s rhetorical turn of phrase that was said in an article for La Révolte about giving a “solid blow of the pick to the old social edifice.”[15] The piece itself was a painting of a “muscular worker, stripped to the waist, hewing at the fabric of a building with a pick axe.”[16] Le Démolisseur provides a dynamic and moral momentum, regarding the main worker’s form as a left handed posture and this opposed the “rubble of bourgeois capitalism to the sheer force of anarchism.”[17] The painting itself was large in size, allowing for clear detail within the  image and the colours used. The light pink colours used to represent dawn gave the image a cold feel, and cast a shadowy look on the bottom.[18] The section of the painting that stands out the most is the foreground. The foreground is equipped with the manly figure. He is “wielding his pick” and “fills half the picture space with his energetic, determined action.”[19] The character is exuding energy through his muscular body, demonstrating that he is in heroic mode.[20] These pictorial elements provide understanding towards Signac’s meaning of the painting. The meaning being destruction is done in order to construct an anarchist future.[21] It represents the process of how destruction (of a certain ideal) can lead to the construction of a new ideal. The construction is referenced to by the crane in the background of the image. By breaking down an old building (or ideal), new ideals can start to show light, and take the place of the old. This is what Signac believed in, and he used this painting to encapsulate this idea of his anarchists beliefs. In order for anarchism to take place, the old ways must be destroyed and buried.

Signac also used geography as a means to portray his anarchist beliefs. In general, when he created paintings regarding geographical locations, he would receive his inspiration from the southern shore of France. By creating his paintings around the southern shore of France, it allowed for him to appropriate “the conventions of pastoral landscape painting to his anarchists goals to envision a paradisical future.”[22] Signac moved to St. Tropez in order to continue making paintings of the southern shore. He would paint the north and south shore as juxtaposing pastorals which promoted a left-wing vision of the Mediterranean shore.[23] This art created surrounds the shore, bringing to light his anarchists beliefs. They also “assimilated [his] hopes for a utopian society,” where anarchism would thrive.[24] By using geography as a way to explore and share his political opinions, Signac was able to compare the north and south shores and relate them in a way that influences anarchism. His comparisons would bring light to the new ideals he wished to be implemented and eliminate the old ways of life.

From Neo-Impressionism, science and anarchism, to looking at a specific painting (Le Démolisseur), to the cultural geography used in his art, Signac used his art to promote anarchism. His art was produced by the use of “contrasting principles”, and the “manner of divided tones for optical mixture”.[25] He also created his art around the “honest portrayal of the life of the humble [and how it] could serve the cause by exposing the injustices and inequalities of the existing social order” and at the same time “their artistic merits could educate the workers and prepare them for the richer existence promised by an anarchist future”[26]. In reference to his cultural geography paintings, he “[articulates] his individuality as a painter and an anarchist ideal in the depiction of individuals working for the collective good.”[27] Signac was an artist who portrayed his ideals in many different ways, but always through his art. He often used similar techniques in order to help keep his ideas consistent, and truly be able to portray anarchism in his paintings. Signac was an important artist in the Neo-Impressionist era due to his ability to portray his anarchists beliefs in his artwork.

Paul Signac, The Port of Saint-Tropez, oil on canvas, 1901

Bibliography

Argüelles, José. “Paul Signac’s “Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Colors, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, Opus 217″.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28, no. 1 (1969): 49-53. https://www.jstor.org/stable/428908

Brion, Katherine. “Paul Signac’s Decorative Propaganda of the 1890s.” RIHA Journal 0044, (2012): 0-37. https://doaj.org/article/c85f3bbff394430cba5a1b22006fd18e

Dymond, Anne. “A Politicized Pastoral: Signac and the Cultural Geography of Mediterranean France.” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 2 (2003): 353-370. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3177348

Herbert, Robert L., and Eugenia W. Herbert. “Artists and Anarchism: Unpublished Letters of Pissarro, Signac and Others – I.” The Burlington Magazine 102, no. 692 (1960): 473-482. http://www.jstor.org/stable/873246

“Neo-impressionism.” Oxford Languages, accessed October 14, 2020. Google dictionary.

Roslak, Robyn S. “The politics of aesthetic harmony: Neo-Impressionism, science, and anarchism.” Art Bulletin 73, no. 3 (1991): 381-390. https://ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=9112091981&site=eds-live

“Signac, Paul.” Gale Biographies: Popular People, edited by Gale Cengage Learning. Gale, 2018. http://ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/galegbpp/signac_paul/0?institutionId=2645

Thomson, Richard. “Ruins, Rhetoric and Revolution: Paul Signac’s Le Démolisseur and Anarchism in the 1890s.” Art History 36, no. 2 (2013): 366-391. doi: 10.1111/1467-8365.12005


  1. “Signac, Paul,” Gale Biographies: Popular People, edited by Gale Cengage Learning, Gale, 2018, http://ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/galegbpp/signac_paul/0?institutionId=2645.
  2. “Neo-impressionism,” Oxford Languages, accessed October 14, 2020, Google dictionary.
  3. Robyn S Roslak, “The politics of aesthetic harmony: Neo-Impressionism, science, and anarchism,” Art Bulletin 73, no. 3 (1991): 381. https://ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=9112091981&site=eds-live.
  4. Roslak, 381.
  5. Roslak, 382.
  6. Roslak, 383.
  7. Roslak, 383.
  8. Roslak, “The politics of aesthetic harmony,” 385.
  9. Katherine Brion, “Paul Signac’s Decorative Propaganda of the 1890s,” RIHA Journal 0044, (2012): 1, https://doaj.org/article/c85f3bbff394430cba5a1b22006fd18e.
  10. Roslak, 382.
  11. Richard Thomson, “Ruins, Rhetoric, and Revolution: Paul Signac’s Le Démolisseur and Anarchism in the 1890s,” Art History 36, no. 2 (2013): 367, doi: 10.1111/1467-8365.12005.
  12. Robert L Herbert, and Herbet, "Artists and Anarchism: Unpublished Letters of Pissarro, Signac and Others - I," The Burlington Magazine 102, no. 692 (1960): 479, http://www.jstor.org/stable/873246.
  13. Thomson, 375.
  14. Thomson, 375.
  15. Thomson, 378.
  16. Thomson, 378.
  17. Thomson, 380.
  18. Thomson, 381.
  19. Thomson, “Ruins, Rhetoric, and Revolution,” 381.
  20. Thomson, 381.
  21. Thomson, 381.
  22. Anne Dymond, “A Politicized Pastoral: Signac and the Cultural Geography of Mediterranean France.” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 2 (2003): 353, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3177348.
  23. Dymond, 353.
  24. Robert L Herbert, and Herbet, "Artists and Anarchism, 480.
  25. José Argüelles, "Paul Signac's "Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Colors, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890, Opus 217"," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28, no. 1 (1969): 51-52, https://www.jstor.org/stable/428908.
  26.   Robert L Herbert, and Herbet, 478.
  27. Thomson, “Ruins, Rhetoric and Revolution,” 376.

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