Work In Focus

As a child Paul Signac grew up in a comfortable middle class home in the hilly Montmartre district of Paris. Numerous artists lived in this neighbourhood, and the young Signac could also see here contemporary paintings displayed in the windows of dealers. This milieu may have contributed to his desire to become a painter himself.

When Signac was sixteen, his father died of tuberculosis. His mother, Héloïse Signac, now moved her family to a more affordable residence in Asnìeres, a residential district to the west of central Paris on the banks of the river Seine. While the Asnières side of the Seine was quite pleasant, with elegant houses and spacious gardens, on the opposite side of the river, at a stone's throw from the Signac home, were to be found the large gas storage tanks, factories, cranes and chimney stacks of the city's industrial quarter, Clichy. The contrast between the two neighbourhoods can be seen in an aerial photograph taken from a hot-air balloon in 1885, at the precise time that Signac was working here. A cluster of seven large gas storage tanks can be seen on the Clichy side of the Seine (one of them appearing unfinished); slightly downriver, rows of large chimneys spill forth swirls of smoke. Signac could apparently see these chimneys from the windows of his family home in Asnières.

Just upriver from Asnières and Clichy lay the island of La Grande Jatte, where Georges Seurat set his first Neo-Impressionist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-86, Art Institute of Chicago), an enormous painting that depicted working and middle class Parisians at weekend leisure.

Encouraged by the example set by Seurat in preparing the final version of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte for exhibition in 1886, Signac's first foray into Divisionist painting was Gasometers at Clichy, painted in March and April of that year. In this work he sought to embrace Seurat's scientific theory of colour division, abandoning the wet-on-wet application of harmonious tones favoured by Impressionism in favour of placing strong, opposing blocks of colour side by side. Signac's first experiments with divided tones can be seen clearly in the middle section of Gasometers at Clichy.

In Gasometers at Clichy Signac challenged conventional notions of the picturesque by focusing on his own somewhat humble neighbourhood, and by extracting beauty from a prosaic view of a red-roofed worker's domicile framed by three of the enormous gas tanks that dominated the Clichy side of the Seine. A companion painting, Passage du Puits-Bertin, Clichy, now lost but known from a related drawing, approached this unprepossessing site from the opposite side. Here a neighbourhood wall is marked with the graffiti Mort aux vaches (Death to the cops), a gritty touch that might reflect Signac's left-wing and anarchist sympathies. These in turn perhaps explain his willingness, in his initial years as a Neo-Impressionist painter, to embrace the freedom from conventional beauty provided by local industrial subjects.

Gasometers at Clichy and Passage du Puits-Bertin, Clichy were first exhibited at 1 rue Laffitte, Paris, an elegantly appointed suite of five rooms above the chic Maison Dorée restaurant, in the eighth and last group showing of the Impressionists. It was Paul Signac's friendship with Camille Pissarro, whom he had met in 1885, that led to his inclusion in this prestigious event. Pissarro, one of the show's principal organisers, was keen to add new blood to the original Impressionist group, in the form of younger artists who were building upon the founding principles of Impressionism. The Neo-Impressionist or Divisionist painting of the young Georges Seurat and Paul Signac met with some resistance from the older Impressionists, however. As a result the works of Signac, Seurat, Camille Pissarro (who had himself adopted the Divisionist manner of painting in 1886) and his son Lucien Pissarro were displayed together in a separate room of the exhibition.

Gasometers at Clichy and Passage du Puits-Bertin, Clichy were also shown together at the second Salon des Indépendants exhibition in Paris in August 1886. Signac's efforts received a mixed reception overall in the Parisian press of the day. The contradiction inherent in Signac's luminous depiction of a decidedly grubby subject was remarked upon by Félix Fénéon, a firm supporter of the artist's work, in an influential review in La Vogue: 'Paul Signac is drawn to suburban landscapes, which he interprets in an individual and penetrating manner. The works that date from this very year are painted according to divisions of tone; they achieve a frenetic intensity of light: Gasometers at Clichy with its work pants and jackets drying on fence palings, its desolate peeling walls, its burned-brown grass and incandescent roofs beneath a blinding sky, gains momentum as the eye rises, and loses itself in an abyss of blinding blue'.

Maurice Hermel was not so taken with Signac's first Neo-Impressionist city views, however, complaining in the journal La France libre that the artist's 'raw colouration tires and angers the eye, while his violent tones exasperate it'.