For many aspiring painters in Paris around 1905, finding one's way as an artiste indépendant into the ranks of the avant-garde meant taking a rite of passage through the technique of divisionism. Following Seurat's death in 1891, Paul Signac became the standard-bearer of Neo-Impressionism, and took steps to modify Seurat's pointillist technique to achieve maximum color contrasts--by early years of the new century the tiny pointillist dot had become larger rectangular brushstrokes of pre-mixed color, resembling the tesserae of a Byzantine mosaic. The paintings of Signac's close friend Henri Edmond Cross had been evolving along similar lines. Many young painters experimented in this style, as indeed did the older Matisse, who spent the summer of 1904 in Saint-Tropez, working in close touch with both Signac and Cross. Matisse went on to paint his first fauve canvases with Derain in Collioure the following year.
Metzinger's Femme au chapeau also owes much to the example of Signac and Cross. He did not, however, develop his version of divisionism into a purely fauve style. Metzinger held a strong interest in geometry and mathematics; unlike the Fauves, he made the appearance of design an important priority in his pictures. This quality is clearly evident in Femme au chapeau, very different from Matisse's famous version of a similar subject. Here Metzinger has clearly demarcated the boundaries of each area of color, similar to the synthetist practice of Gauguin, which lends the picture a solid, crystalline design. There is perhaps a presentiment here of Metzinger's subsequent interest in the faceting of forms, an important element in the development of Cubism. He explained his pictorial ideas to the American writer Gelett Burgess in late 1908 or early 1909:
"Instead of copying nature...we create a milieu of our own wherein our sentiment can work itself out through a juxtaposition of colors. It is hard to explain it, but it may perhaps be illustrated by analogy with literature and music... Music does not attempt to imitate nature's sounds, but it does interpret and embody emotions awakened by nature through a convention of its own, in a way to be aesthetically pleasing. In some such way, we, taking our hint from Nature, construct decoratively pleasing harmonies and symphonies of color expressive of our sentiment" (quoted in G. Burgess, "Wild Men of Paris," Architectural Record, May 1910, p. 413).
The firmly drawn construction of Metzinger's pictorial design superimposes hardness and solidity on every part of the artist's subject, and the background as well, in Femme au chapeau. This is an intended effect, which Metzinger contrasts by rendering these forms in a divisionist technique, which softens and refines the overall impact of the picture. Metzinger stated, "I ask of divided brushwork not the objective rendering of light, but irridescences and certain aspects of color still foreign to painting. I make a kind of chromatic versification, and for syllables, I use strokes which, variable in quality, cannot differ in dimension without modifying the rhythm of a picture phraseology destined to translate the diverse emotions aroused by nature" (quoted in R. Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1968, p. 221).
Following his youthful foray into divisionism, Metzinger turned briefly to a robust, Gauguinesque manner in rendering the figure, using strong outlines and flat areas of color. Then, in 1910, he became involved in the early development of Cubism, a decision that shaped his mature style. Burgess in his article did not hide a preference for Metzinger's paintings of 1907-1909: "Metzinger once did gorgeous mosaics of pure pigment, each little square of pigment not quite touching the next, so that an effect of vibrant light should result. He painted exquisite compositions of cloud and cliff and sea; he painted women and made them fair" (op. cit.).