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Paris in the Time of Neo-Impressionism

What does ‘independent’ really mean?


MAR 21, 2023 | ISSUE 4

Illustration by Jeremy Lewis

“What are we going to do?” my husband asked, sadly. “It’s July, and our plans to fly to Italy were cancelled by the pandemic. Maybe it’s time to get more familiar with our own country?” So we decided to join a tour with Irina International and head on a four-day trip to Quebec for some whale-watching on the Saguenay River. I was happy that we’d be stopping in Montreal for a couple hours since I’d read about an extraordinary exhibition in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), titled Paul Signac and Paris in the Days of Post-Impressionism. Signac is one of our favourite painters! Though the museum was closed due to the pandemic, the exhibition was open. But to our disappointment, the guide said that we would not be going

through Montreal but driving directly to Quebec City.

However, a small miracle happened right as our trip started. The bus’s air conditioner decided to stop working—unsurprisingly, since the tour bus hadn’t been busy for a few months by then. The day was extremely hot and it was increasingly clear that something had to be done about it. So when our guide decided to stop in Montreal for a couple hours to fix it, we succeeded in booking online tickets as soon as we arrived in Montreal and 15 minutes later, via Uber, we were in the MMFA! Walking around this exhibition was two hours of pure happiness, filling our souls with the colors, sounds, and people of Paris during the Belle Epoque. This collection has been shown in part at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny, but the exhibit in Montreal, unequaled in its holdings of Neo-Impressionist art, is being shown in full for the first time.

The exhibition was subtitled “Paul Signac and the Independents,” referring to the group of painters led by Signac. What does ‘independent’ really mean? It’s a question as relevant today as it was in 1884 when Paul Signac and a group of avant-garde artists came together to form the Société des Artistes Indépendants, also known as the Salon des Indépendants. Promoting the idea of an exhibition free from judgment and absent of reward (under the motto ‘sans jury ni récompense’), the founders of the Salon shared a fundamentally democratic vision and a profound belief that art could encourage social good. In the words of Signac, “Justice in sociology, harmony in art: same thing.”

From its inception until the onset of World War I, the Salon des Indépendants provided an exhibition platform for the most significant movements in modern art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Neo-Impressionism, Nabism, Symbolism, Fauvism and Cubism. For the first time, and exclusively in Montreal, this exhibition brought together over 500 magnificent works from exceptional private collections that took us on a journey through the major artistic movements associated with the Salon between 1884 and 1914, and through the Paris in which they lived.

Much like our own time, the Belle Epoque witnessed the birth of new technologies and unprecedented freedom of expression, but also great social and political unrest. More than a survey of Signac and the Salon des Indépendants, this exhibition is a celebration of the Post-Impressionist era’s independent spirit, characterized by freedom of expression and experimentation, boundless imagination, the drive for women’s emancipation, challenges to existing societal norms, and art posted on every street for everyone to see.

In establishing the Salon des Indépendants, Paul Signac and his colleagues were continuing the legacy of a number of maverick artists who created alternative spaces for exhibition outside of the official, state-controlled Salon. Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, that Salon had served as the single most important exhibition and opportunity for recognition for French artists. In 1857, a remarkably high number of submissions were refused by the Salon’s jury, largely made up of members of Académie des Beaux-Arts who were decidedly unreceptive to works that strayed from their academic tradition. But in 1863, the year Paul Signac was born, an exhibition of works rejected from the Salon was held in Paris on the order of Napoleon III. Named the Salon des Refusés, the exhibition featured works by numerous rejected artists associated with the emerging avant-garde such as Édouard Manet and Paul Cezanne.

A decade later, a group of artists now known as the Impressionists (also referred to by contemporary critics as the Independents), came together to establish their own exhibitions. Held in the spring of 1874, the first Impressionist exhibition was organized by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro, who would join forces with Signac and other modern artists to found the Société des Artistes Indépendants. While they adopted a number of the Impressionists’ professional strategies, many moved away from Impressionism’s emphasis on intuition and the instantaneous, turning instead to science and social theory for creative inspiration.

Impressionism and the subsequent development of the Salon des Indépendants also coincided with the rise of feminism in France. Although professional opportunities for women artists expanded through the last decades of the 19th century, their careers generally remained marginalized relative to those of their male peers. And the increasing prominence of women artists was hardly uncontested; chauvinist attitudes towards their work persisted among male artists and critics alike. Despite these obstacles, several women Impressionists left a lasting mark on the history of French art. One such woman was Berthe Morisot, who studied under the renowned artist Edouard Manet alongside fellow painter Eva Gonzales and made a name for herself as the only woman to exhibit alongside the Impressionists at their inaugural exhibition in 1874. She was also influential in organizing the Impressionists’ annual exhibitions, which featured works by other important women artists of her generation such as Mary Cassatt. Morisot also exhibited with a number of artists among the Indépendants, including Paul Signac, Odilon Redon and Maurice Denis, among others.

Working within the constraints imposed by society based on their gender—prevented from entering the cafes, bars, brasseries and art academies that provided inspiration and training to men—Morisot, Gonzales and Cassatt pushed back against the conventions of what and how a woman should paint. Trailblazers for the next generation of women artists, many of whom exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, these acclaimed Impressionist painters are celebrated in numerous works produced by their male peers. Manet painted countless portraits of Morisot throughout their lifelong friendship, two of which were on display at this exhibition. Auguste Renoir, also a close friend of Morisot, often used her daughter (and Manet’s niece) Julie Manet as his model. Likewise, Edgar Degas frequently depicted Cassatt, who is shown at the Louvre in the lithograph on view.

There were a number of works of Neo-Impressionists at this exhibition, a form which both built upon and challenged the methods of the Impressionist painters. The term was coined by the French art critic Félix Fénéon in August 1886 during the annual exhibition by the Salon des Indépendants. Many of the canvases shown employed the divisionist technique, in which small strokes of complementary colors are placed next to one another to construct an image that, when viewed from a distance, appears as a radiant, harmonious whole. Championed by Georges Seurat, Divisionism drew upon the contemporary scientific theories of colour advanced by many contemporaries. While Signac aimed to create balanced, luminous paintings, his desire to achieve visual harmony echoes the spirit of social harmony for which he advocated throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Montreal exhibition gave a wide, brilliant and colorful picture of Paris of that time – with pieces by Signac and fellow avant-garde artists, Impressionists (Monet, Morisot), Fauves (Dufy, Friesz, Marquet), Symbolists (Gauguin, Redon), Nabis (Bonnard, Denis, Lacombe, Sérusier, Ranson, Vallotton), Neo-Impressionists (Cross, Luce, Pissarro, Seurat, Van Rysselberghe) and observers of life in Paris (Anquetin, Degas, Ibels, Lautrec, Picasso and Steinlen). We left the exhibition feeling that even if our tour wasn’t a success, we’d already had our dreams come true.