‘We are coming out of the hard and useful period of analysis in which all our studies resembled on another, and entering that of personal and varied creation.’ – Paul Signac
(quoted in H. Widauer, ed., Ways of Pointillism: Seurat, Signac and Van Gogh, exh. cat. Vienna, 2016, p. 99)
‘I attach more and more importance to the purity of the touch and I try to give it its maximum purity and intensity: it is the love of the beautiful hue that makes us paint like this, not the taste for the point.’ – Paul Signac
(Signac quoted in F. Cachin, Signac: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Paris, 2000, pp. 58-60)
On 18 February 1896, Paul Signac left his home in Saint-Tropez to travel north, heading to Brussels to meet his friend and fellow Neo-Impressionist Théo van Rysselberghe, before continuing on to Holland for a brief sojourn at the end of the month. Though the trip was short, the two artists journeyed extensively throughout the country, from the hustle and bustle of the port cities, to the quiet, small picturesque towns and villages that dotted the landscape in between, visiting Antwerp, Vlissingen, Rotterdam, The Hague, Volendam, Amsterdam, and the village of Edam on their travels. Capturing a rich and varied vision of the country’s landscapes and unique character, Signac created six paintings dedicated to Dutch subjects upon his return to France (Cachin, nos. 292-297). While the majority of these canvases explore scenes of boats traversing the country’s extensive network of waterways or coming in to port, Moulin d’Edam is one of only two recorded works that presents a charming vision of one of the country’s most iconic motifs, the towering windmills that dotted the otherwise flat countryside, in a view most typically seen in tourist brochures or postcards.
Writing in his journal shortly after beginning this work, Signac described the atmospheric conditions and colour harmonies he set out to achieve in the composition: ‘Started the Edam windmill with the boats in the mist. The mill: a harmony of violet and melancholic green. It is extraordinary here in this light, these blues, these oranges, this barely sketched canvas seems strange, exotic’ (Signac, journal entry from 7 May 1896, quoted in F. Cachin, Signac, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Paris, 2000, p. 226). The dating of this journal entry provides an important glimpse into Signac’s practice and evolving technique during this period of his career, as he began to increasingly rely on watercolour sketches, created in the landscape directly before the motif, as aide-mémoires upon his return to the studio. These spontaneous studies, capturing the ephemeral weather conditions and light of a particular moment, would then supply Signac with the pictorial inspiration needed for his carefully constructed compositions in oil. As a result, many of the Dutch landscapes from 1896 are most likely constructed vistas, combining elements from several different places, drawn from sketches and the artist’s memories, rather than an exact portrayal of a particular scene or moment in time.
Here, the windmill occupies the heart of the composition, its elegant form towering above the cluster of neighbouring single-storey buildings, its motionless arms conveying the extreme stillness of the scene, as the soft mist envelops the landscape. Powerfully capturing a sense of these fleeting atmospheric conditions, Signac employs a range of soft, cool tones throughout the composition, using a much more restrained colour palette than the bright, saturated hues of his light-filled views of the Côte d’Azur. At this time, Signac was also exploring a looser, more rectangular brushstroke in his work, more akin to the tesserae of a mosaic than the precise point of previous years. Though their placement remained strictly controlled by the artist, these bold strokes of colour lent his compositions a new sense of dynamism and chromatic luminosity, their forms overlapping in rich, complex patterns as they dance across the canvas. For example, in Moulin d’Edam Signac uses dense layers of rhythmic, overlapping brushwork in the sky, each stroke set at a particular angle to achieve a criss-cross effect that appears to vibrate before the viewer. Echoing a tightly woven tapestry, this pattern recurs throughout the composition, from the grassy verge in the foreground, to the rooves of the buildings surrounding the windmill, though it gives way to a series of concentric rings encircling the sun in the upper right hand corner of the canvas, which illustrate the suffused rays of sunlight, filtered through the vapour.
Signac’s decision to travel to the Netherlands may have been inspired by the example of Claude Monet, who journeyed to Amsterdam and the surrounding countryside on several occasions during the 1870s. The Impressionist master was an important figure within Signac’s artistic life – indeed, when asked what had prompted him to embark upon a career as an artist, Signac replied without hesitation ‘It is Monet’ (Signac, quoted in M. Ferretti-Bocquillon, A. Distel, J. Leighton & S. A. Stein, Signac: 1863-1935, exh. cat., New York, 2001, p. 69). Monet’s one-man show at the offices of La Vie moderne in 1880 had left an indelible impression on the young Signac’s artistic imagination, and he held the older artist in high esteem, even during the most experimental stages of his career when he actively sought to counter the Impressionist vision with his pointillist aesthetic. ‘A Monet has always moved me,’ he later explained. ‘I have drawn a lesson from it, and in days of discouragement and doubt a Monet for me was always a friend and a guide’ (Signac, ibid., p. 71).