Exhibitions/ Signac 1863–1935

Signac 1863–1935: Master Neo-Impressionist

October 9–December 30, 2001
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Approximately 120 paintings, watercolors, and drawings constitute the first major retrospective in almost forty years to be devoted to the Neo-Impressionist artist Paul Signac (1863–1935). This long-overdue tribute to Signac's power of expression traces the artist's development from the luminous plein-air paintings he made in the early 1880s under the influence of Monet's Impressionism; to his close association with Georges Seurat, from 1884 until 1891, which became the starting point for his exploration of color harmony, contrasts, and Neo-Impressionist technique; to the scintillating works of his maturity, where the rigors of pointillist style give way to richly patterned, mosaic-like surfaces of color.

Arranged chronologically, the selection of works traces Signac's development from an art based on observation and direct study of nature, through the rigor and optical precision of Neo-Impressionism to a more subjective art based on his own concepts of pictorial and social harmony. Essentially self-taught, Signac's first works, plein-air studies painted in the early 1880s in Paris and its neighboring suburbs, reveal the lessons he absorbed from Monet, Guillaumin, Caillebotte, and other Impressionists whose examples were his starting point.

By the end of the decade, Seurat's art was the crucial catalyst for the evolution of Signac's painting, providing a model for his technique, his manner of working and even, on occasion, the design of his compositions. Notwithstanding Signac's romantic bent, his more tactile brushstrokes and his stronger color contrasts, it was not until the 1890s—after the death of Seurat—that his work fully came into its own. Signac developed a bolder and looser technique, relying increasingly on the dramatic and architectonic play of color. His discovery of "the joy of watercolor" in 1892—a medium in which, after Cézanne, he was to become the undisputed master in the twentieth century—offered a vehicle for a freer and livelier means of expression, one well suited to his restless, peripatetic lifestyle. In the best of his late works Signac combined the sensual legacy of his first pictures with the cool rationality of Neo-Impressionism to create images of extraordinary chromatic richness and feeling.

An avid yachtsman who settled in Saint-Tropez in 1892, Signac is celebrated for his glorious views of port towns along the French coast and his resplendent seascapes. Prominently featured in the exhibition, these sea and harbor scenes in oil and watercolor are joined by lesser known works, among them his early views of the industrialized suburbs of Paris, the vibrant watercolor still lifes of his maturity, and striking ink drawings he made at the end of his career. Signac's extraordinary Portrait of Félix Fénéon, Opus 217, (1890–91, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and his other ambitious figure compositions, The Dining Room (1886–87, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), Sunday (1888–90, private collection), and Women at the Well, Opus 238 (1892, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) complete the survey.

The exhibition is made possible by The Florence Gould Foundation.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible in part by the Janice H. Levin Fund.