Exhibition – Paul Signac (1863 – 1935) in Lausanne, Switzerland

Exhibition about Paul Signac ‘Une vie que fil de l’eau (A life as a son of water)’ in La Foundation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne from 29 Jan – 22 May 2016. (click here  – accessed 18 May 2016)

The intention of the museum was to show with almost 140 oil paintings, watercolours and drawings the prolific career of Signac as a neo-impressionist artist and his artistic development  from his early Impressionist paintings through  years of neo-Impressionism, images of Saint Tropez and portrayals of Venice, Rotterdam and Constantinople to the late watercolours of the Ports of France series. A juxtaposition of Signac’s Impressionist ardour of the studies from nature with the limpid polychromy of the pointillist paintings and the bold Japonism of the watercolours with the freedom of the plein air works. Also on show were Signac’s ink drawings with washes that reveal serene compositions long time hidden in his studio.

In the context of this course unit I was fascinated to see that one room was dedicated to Signac’s intest in the color harmonies based on Michele-Eugène Chevreul, Charles Blanc and Charles Henry with some of the handmade color studies from that time.

  • ‘Application du cercle chromatique de Mr. Ch. Henry’ (Application of the chromatique circle of Charles Henry)
    (programme pour le Théâtre-Libre), 1888
    Lithographie (16 x 18,5 cm)


=> Paul Signac’s enthusiasm for the experiments by Charles Henry (1859 – 1891). This print also reveals Signac’s interest in theatre (T-L = Théâtre-Libre) and typography. The polychromy of this piece is perfectly ordered.


=> with fluent brush strokes and a sensible choice of complementary colors. I find this oil sketch quite intriguing and helpful for my own studies as it demonstrated quite clearly how to apply color harmonies.

The large scale painting is a display of an Arcadian harmony and ideal life devoted to love. But it is also full of political and social reference as the original title was ‘In the Time of Anarchy’ does indicate.

  • Saint-Tropez. Fontaine des Lices‘, 1895
    Oil on canvas (65 x 81 cm)

IMG_0556close up:










=> This painting is already a turning point in Paul Signac’s work. He abandons the concept of optical mixing. Smaller brushstrokes (tâche – characteristic for Neo-Impressionists) and creation of secondary chromatic harmonies are key elements in Signac’s new painting approach. Blue, yellow and red colours are enforced by complementary oranges, violets, and greens to create those visual effects.

The museum is located in an older renovated house. Walking along the exhibition I noticed the rather traditional hanging with heavy gilded frames. This brought me back to my research on Chevrel’s color theory and Camille Pisarro. Pissarro used instead of the popular gilded frames rather white frames and later also frames painted in the complementary color of the dominating hue of the painting in order to enhance the chromatic intensity. Seeing this color concept paintings in gilded frames I now really understood the reasons for Pissarro. I felt a bit disappointed of the museum that they still used the traditional frames. The frame just become too dominant and ruined at times the color impact of the paintings.

  • Mont-Saint-Michel. Brume et soleil‘, 1897
    Oil on canvas (46.7 x 45.5 cm) Private collection


=> a fine balanced colour harmony of a serene place undisturbed by human presence. The triangular composition is in harmony with the colours used. The atmospheric visual perception has some echoes with J.M.W. Turner.

Since 1892 when Signac tried to work in watercolour in St.Tropez France, he dedicated himself  completely to watercolour paintings only. Inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s bamboo drawings and with a fascinating for Japanese art Signac made bold watercolour sketches enhanced with Indian Ink drawings that are expressive and unique in its visual appeal.

  • Port de Saint-Tropez, étude de reflets‘ (study), 1894
    Watercolour, pen and ink (10.2 cm x 17cm)



During this time Signac made a series of Indian ink and washes sketches in large scale (around 70 x 90 cm) en plain air in quite a painterly approach. As a passionate sailor himself his subject matter was mostly the coast with the sailing ships. There is a bold contrast and interplay of light and shadow. At times I felt that those ink washes are resembling wood cuts . and than rather black water colour paintings. Knowing that those were made as preparatory sketches for his paintings it is intriguing to see them large scale in front of me. At times I felt a bit overwhelmed by the visual impact. Perhaps it was the room or the frames – so different to the more contemporary hanging with neutral frames.


Looking further I felt attracted by a still life – hanging nearly hidden in a hallway of the museum.

  • Nature Morte – Citrons, pêches, raisins et jarre‘, 1918
    Watercolour (31,5 x 43,5 cm). Private collection


=> With some echoes to Paul Cézanne’s still life. Neo-impressionistic with its techies (blots of brushstrokes) and a balance color harmony with complementary colors. This still life lives and vibrates less through contrast and rather through balanced harmonies. I really enjoyed looking at this piece of work.

In the last room of the exhibition were all the French ports that Signac painted as a new project with financial support from Gaston Lévy during the period from 1929 till 1931. Signac took endless pleasure in with no fatigue in depicting those places at the coast in watercolour alongside crayon line drawing. His endless travels eventually ended in two bound volumes.

Paul Signac was a travel artist (today we would call him an ‘arty nomad’) with taken no rest and full of energy. I felt quite exhausted looking at those one in a row – so close to each other. It resembled more a catalogue. I didn’t find consolation in looking at those. I was wondering why it was like that.






  • Sketches in oil (or other paint) can help to understand colour harmonies. To make plenty o f them
  • Color harmonies based on complementary colours can be applied in various way (optical mixing, tâches …
  • Bold sketches with a combination of colour washes and line drawing do have a unique visual effect.


  • Bocquillon, M.F. (2013) ‘Signac – Les Couleurs de l’eau‘ Paris: Gallimard

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