Signac’s Milliners

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 SignacThe 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.

3 thoughts on “Signac’s Milliners

  1. cauartprof says:


    I have been thinking about your question concerning the relationship between technique and composition. My guess is that they are not reliant or deterministic on one another. Maybe in cases where the art is almost entirely about process this could be true. The Signac looks like it was painted from a photographic source. I tried to find some reference to see if he, like Degas, used the occasional photo, but found nothing. I can’t imagine asking a model to hold the position of reaching down for longer than a 10-minute sketch. I do not doubt that he could get a lot of information in a quick sketch and that may very well be how the painting was started but surely the models were long gone during the labor of all those dabs of color. Maybe someone out there that follows your blog knows more about his approach.

    Hope you are feeling better. I had the good fortune to see the traveling exhibit “Girl with the Pearl Earring” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta yesterday. It was hard to see the famous Vermeer because of the placement of the piece (too high and cordoned off) but there were some fantastic Rembrandt portraits where you could really see the application of paint. Just before leaving I went through the European Gallery and they have a little Bonnard titled “The Breakfast”. Fantastic! Check it out on line and it will give you a little joy for the day.


    • artmodel says:


      Bonnard’s “Breakfast” is wonderful! I had never seen that one before. Thanks for recommending it! Also, my own Vermeer viewing story is similar to yours. When “The Milkmaid” came to the Met a couple of years ago, the crowds in front of it were so thick it was a miracle I was able to get even a glimpse of it. But she sure was a beauty 🙂

      Thanks for your great comments!


  2. Fascinating picture, and one I’ve not seen before! I like some of the pointillism art, it’s actually what got me to believe that maybe I could paint. I tried it – it was fun, but a little tedious after a while, and so I gave up and tried a standard painting instead – I could paint, there was no lack of ability in me to paint at all, I just thought there was! But it was worth being drawn in by that art, just to discover that!! 😀

    Yes, and I hope she didn’t have to lean over like that for too long – poor girl!
    Suzy 😀

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