Paul SIGNAC | Women at the well (Young girls from Provence at the well: decoration for a panel in the shadows) [Femmes au puits (Jeunes provençales au puits: décoration pour un panneau dans la pénombre)]

Paul SIGNAC
France 1863 – 1935

Women at the well (Young girls from Provence at the well: decoration for a panel in the shadows)
[Femmes au puits (Jeunes provençales au puits: décoration pour un panneau dans la pénombre)]
1892
oil on canvas
canvas 195.0 (h) x 131.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1979
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Angrand and Gauguin—along with many others who viewed the ninth Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1893—disliked this painting. Angrand opined that Signac should have decided whether it was a landscape or a figure composition. Gauguin derided the collision between the modern and archaic:

A well by the seashore: some Parisian figures in gaily striped costumes, thirsty with ambition, doubtless seeking in this dry well the water that will slake their thirst. The whole thing confetti.1

The contrasts with the muted modernity of one of Angrand’s street-scenes, or the solidity of Gauguin’s Breton subjects (Yellow haystacks and Breton peasant women), could not be more dramatic.

In March 1892 Signac sailed from Finistère in Brittany, travelling via the Canal-du-Midi and Marseilles, to the village of St-Tropez on France’s southern coast. Signac's subject matter changed rapidly and significantly when he moved south: instead of working-class landscapes in Paris and its suburbs, he now began to paint decorative images of the village and panoramic views of the shoreline.He later built a large studio at La Hune, his villa at St-Tropez—where this painting was long displayed—and until 1913 spent at least six months of most years on the Côte d’Azur.

Women at the well reveals Signac’s new interest in large-scale, classically inspired landscape settings, and marks the revival of interest in decorative public art more generally in the 1890s. The brilliant colours of this tapestry-like panel, with its patterns and arabesques, suggest an idealised scene. Its vertical format, blue frame and stylised shadows may be a tribute to Seurat’s The circus2, a work which Signac later owned. The abstract contour of the coast-line divides the canvas via the diagonal, the section of sky balanced by the patterns in the foreground, which are, in turn, picked up by the winding ribbon-like road. The artist’s landscapes to date, like Seurat’s, had been largely unpopulated. Drawings for Women at the well show that Signac may once have conceived it—like his next major work, In the time of harmony: the golden age is not in the past, it is in the future 1893–95—as part of a multi-figured composition.3

Signac had been drawn south by his friend Cross. Signac left Paris in 1892, disillusioned by the diminished presence of the Neo-Impressionist avant-garde and, in part, because of the surge in anarchist violence and subsequent government crackdown which saw his friends Luce and Félix Fénéon imprisoned in the ‘Trial of the Thirty’. Women at the well—which captures the temperate climate, aesthetic charm, and decentralised village life of the region—may be seen as his prefiguring of an ideal anarchist future.4 While Gauguin went to Tahiti searching for paradise, Signac envisioned utopia in coastal Provence.

Lucina Ward

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. The intimate journals of Paul Gauguin, London: K.P.I. 1985, n. 1, p. 27.
  2. Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the study for The circus is The circus (sketch).
  3. Both drawings, and several painted studies, are held in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. In the time of harmony: the golden age is not in the past, it is in the future is in Montreuil.
  4. Robyn Roslak, Neo-Impressionism and anarchism in fin-de-siècle France: painting, politics and landscape, Aldershot: Ashgate 2007, p. 147.