The Metropolitan Museum is attempting to upgrade Seurat's reputation with the first major retrospective of his work in 40 years, including 70 oil paintings and 50 watercolors, drawings and prints. The show will be on view through Dec. 30, as will a complimentary exhibition, "Neo-Impressionism, the Circle of Paul Signac," in the museum's Lehman Wing.
"Our simple aim has been to offer the public a chance to reassess Signac's work in its own right," said Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, in an interview defending the outsized show, the kind generally reserved for a Rembrandt or a Renoir, that has been organized by the Metropolitan, the National Museums of France, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
"It has been Signac's fate to be presented as the second man of Neo-Impressionism, a follower and an imitator. We are attempting to bring the individual character of his art to the fore in the belief that his work has an intensity and expressive power that is entirely his own."
Signac lived from 1863 until 1935, and the show is arranged chronologically to trace his development artistically over a period of six decades. Signac's mentor, Seurat, died in 1891, so that Signac was on his own as an artist for most of his career and was not merely a Seurat acolyte as his detractors have claimed.
He was a realist painter without any real academic training when he first met Seurat, only four years his elder, in 1884 and became an immediate convert to pointillism, the breaking up of a painting into myriad dots of pure, pulsating color.
Seurat had invented this technique on the theory that the eye, not the brush, should do the blending of tones in a manner considered optically pure. Camille Pissaro, an important Impressionist, also adopted Pointillism but soon renounced it, and Henri Matisse experimented with the technique briefly. Only one American painter, Maurice Prendergast, practiced the Pointillism successfully.
Seurat and Signac were asked to display their work at the last Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1886. Their paintings caused an immediate sensation and were dubbed Neo- Impressionist in style by the critic Felix Feneon, who was to become Signac's closest friend and biographer.
It is Signac's audacious 1891 portrait of Feneon that is the star of the Metropolitan Museum exhibition and the one painting that cannot be denied the appellation of "masterpiece."
It portrays the dandified critic in profile, striding forward top hat and cane in one hand and the other extended to proffer a white cyclamen bloom to someone approaching unseen. Feneon is painted against a background made up of a giant pinwheel of patterned arabesques suggested by a Japanese wood block print that Signac owned.
The horizontal composition with its spectacular kaleidoscope of colors is Signac's most dynamic work and is on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art, one of 35 museums and nine private collections that have made contributions to the exhibition that visited Paris and Amsterdam before coming to New York.
Feneon's portrait is painted in small dots, which Signac described as "rhythmic with beats and angles, tones and tints." Larger, mosaic-size brush strokes (Signac called this technique "Divisionism") began to make their appearance in flower studies and landscapes he painted in St. Tropez on the French Riviera in 1894 and were fully developed in a lovely scene of that resort's port with sailing ships titled "The Red Buoy" painted a year later.
Water is the one constant in Signac's paintings. Almost every canvas contains views or a glimpse of the sea, estuaries, rivers, ponds, pools, and in the case of Venice, which he first visited in 1904, the lagoon and canals. The nervous pattern of mosaic color spots was perfect for portraying the subtle movement of water and the rippling effects of light on its surface.
Signac once wrote that he discovered "the joys of watercolor" in 1892 and assiduously developed his technique in this medium while still painting in oils in a formulaic manner.
Many critics believe his watercolors are his best work, topped in quality only by the watercolors of Paul Cezanne. The final gallery in the exhibition is devoted to watercolors painted as late as 1935 that illustrate how Signac finally reduced Pointillism to a minor role in his art as watercolor freed him to develop a bolder, looser technique than the strictures of dot painting had ever allowed him. These are busy paintings.
But Signac's Pointillist oils have an attractive serenity that is missing in the naturally livelier watercolors. This is evident in "Saint-Cast, Opus 209" the light-bleached view of a headland as seen from a foreground beach, painted as early as 1890, and in the warmly sunny "Flood at the Pont Royale, Paris," painted as late as 1926. Signac's favorite time of the day was, he once wrote, "morning calm and evening calm."
The other show in the Lehman Wing is drawn entirely from the Met's own collection and features 60 paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints by Signac, Seurat, Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, and Hippolyte Petitjean, providing a context for appreciating Signac's achievements in relation to others in the Neo-Impressionist circle.
Pointillism's "second string" artists are a pretty impressive lot, especially Luce and Cross who developed highly individual styles in their landscape paintings.
A fully illustrated catalog titled "Signac" with a text to which six Neo-Impressionist experts contributed has been published for the show (Yale University Press, 340 pages, $65, softcover $45).