The Milliners by Paul Signac

“Art is a creation of a higher order than a copy of nature which is governed by chance.”

Paul Signac’s The Milliners is considerably less famous than George Seurat’s emblematic Pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte yet a remarkable example of the genre.

“Signac knew these milliners, Berthe Robles is the figure on the left, attempting to pick up the fallen scissors and tape, and was able to observe their habitual gestures and activities, as Degas had done before him with ballet dancers and laundresses, as well as milliners (depicting the last as early as 1882). Several years later Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, probably informed by Signac himself, pointed out that The Milliners was painted in the same color harmony as Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, a fact that had gone unnoticed by the critics of 1886. And yet Delacroix had been in the news in 1885, when Signac began painting this scene.”

“Pointillism” is a style of painting that employs application of small dots of color “to create the maximum colour intensity in a Neo-Impressionist canvas”. Signac himself called the technique “Divisionism” which was based upon using short and controlled individual strokes of pigment, aimed at achieving greater vibrancy and radiance of light and color. Water and water-based themes like bathers at a river, boats sailing or docked at a harbor, glimmering views of the French coast, Italian Riviera or the Venetian canals,  were common subjects in pointillist paintings.

In addition to their color and light theory, dots of pure color were thought to be re-focused at a distance by the viewer’s eye, Neo-Impressionists were also interested in refining artificial pictorial construction. For example, Signac furthered pictorial ideas first introduced by Seurat who passed away at a young age. The Milliners demonstrates how well the Divisionist ideas could be applied to the depiction of interior scenes. Here, through an extremely well organized arrangement of elements, Signac attempted to overcome a number of compositional problems at once. The composition is complex, but not cluttered. The milliner in the foreground is presented in extreme foreshortening, adding depth to the pictorial space. This figure in a very active pose is contrasted by the flatness of the elements in the lower right corner – a hatbox and rolls of felt and fabric.

Signac first presented the painting in the eighth and last exhibition, which the Impressionists held in spring 1886. There it was hung in a separate room, which was described in the program as the hall of the “Neo-Impressionists”. The painting is in the collection of the Foundation E. G. Bührle, Zurich.

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