Every once in a while I like to post a work of art simply because something about it caught my attention in a peculiar or intriguing way. Any number of things can prompt us to pause and look closer at a work of art: color, technique, subject matter. For me it’s often composition which grabs my eye.
The late 19th century style of painting called “pointillism”, in the school of Neo-Impressionism, usually brings to mind the luminous outdoor scenes and shimmering cityscapes of artists like Paul Seurat and Camille Pissarro. Indeed, the goal of the pointillist technique – applying small dots of pigment using short controlled brushstrokes – was to achieve a radiant effect of light and color, the defining aspects of the pointillist aesthetic. So it makes perfect sense that many pointillist works include water, and its reflective quality, in their subjects – sailboats docked in a harbor, bathers at a river, and glistening views of the French coast.
This is not to say that the pointillists never painted any figures or indoor scenes. They did. Whether their technique works as effectively in those subjects is up for debate. This work by Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac, The Modistes, or “Two Milliners”, attracted me not for the usual pointillist attributes but for its composition. I also have a fondness for paintings of people at work – laborers, peasants in the field, fishermen, seamstresses, etc. Signac gives us an interesting scene here that does not feel cluttered although it easily could have. Diligent hatmakers busy at work, their supplies and materials strewn about, heavy contrasts. Also, speaking as an artist’s model, we have one of the most “active” poses I’ve seen in the woman bending over to pick up the scissors. Let’s hope Signac developed that from a sketch and didn’t make the woman hold it for a posing session because that has “back spasm” written all over it
It’s interesting to wonder how this scene would have worked in the hands of a non-pointillist painter. Perhaps I’m making a mistake in assuming that the composition of this piece and the technique used to execute it are mutually exclusive. The composition’s arrangement is well organized, something pointillists are known for, and I mentioned earlier the sharply defined contrasts. The areas of color are very pure and clean. Remember that pointillists employed a visual trick if you will, intending for the viewer’s eye to do the “blending”. In a little swipe at the Impressionists of the day and what he perceived as excessive blending of paint, Signac called their palettes “muddy mixtures”. However, the pointillist technique was surely not for everyone. The discipline, scientific approach to color, and methodical attention to detail requires a certain kind of temperament to carry out successfully. As much as I like this painting of the milliners, I think pointillism truly soars and best demonstrates its visual splendor in works like this one.