Paul Signac was born in Paris in 1863 into a well-to-do bourgeois family. Both his father and grandfather had worked in the luxury saddlery business and could boast of having the emperor Napoleon III as a client. Soon after Paul was born, the family moved to the rue Frochot in Montmartre, a private street known for the famous stage celebrities and artists who lived and worked there.
The neighborhood in which Signac grew up lent itself well to nurturing a vocation in the arts, and as an only child he enjoyed the support of his liberal parents. As an adolescent, Signac was attracted by Impressionist paintings in gallery windows and went to the exhibitions held by hte painters, then considered revolutionaries. In 1880, at the age of sixteen, he was thrown out of the fifth Impressionist exhibition by Paul Gauguin for making a sketch after a painting by Degas and was told disdainfully that "one does not copy here, Sir."
During the same year, Signac suffered the great loss of his otherwise happy childhood: his affectionate and attentive father, Jules Signac, died of tuberculosis. His mother and grandfather sold the business and moved to Aspières, a new residential suburb of Paris. Although a good student, Signac left school and rented a room in Montmartre.
The windows of the Signac house in Asnières looked out on a garden, the Seine, and the smokestacks of the Clichy factories. The banks of the Seine were to inspire many paintings, drawings, and watercolors by the young painter, but his earliest joy there was boating. Through his childhood friend Charles Torquer, Signac soon came into contact with literary circles, meeting the Naturalist writers and critics who would later become staunch supporters of Neo-Impressionism. The incident with Gauguin notwithstanding, the young Signac continued to visit avant-garde exhibitions, and this activity ultimately led to his choice of vocation.
Signac later said that the paintings of Claude Monet at the June 1880 exhibition in the offices of La Vie moderne led him to opt for the career of a painter. In 1884 he met Monet and Georges Seurat, whose systematic working methods and theory of color struck the young artist. Under Seurat's influence, Signac abandoned the short brushstrokes of Impressionism to experiment with scientifically juxtaposed small dots of pure color, intended to combine and blend not on the canvas but in the viewer's eye, the defining feature of Pointillism.
In 1885 Signac met Camille Pissarro, who also adopted Seurat's technique. Against the wishes of the Impressionists, Pissarro invited the Pointillist to participate in their eighth and last group show in 1886.
Many of Signac's paintings are of the French coast, and he experimented with various media. As well as oil paintings and watercolors, he made etchings, lithographs, and many pen-and-ink sketches composed of small, laborious dots. Watercolors form an important part of Signac's oeuvre and he produced a large quantity during his numerous travels.