Habits of Mind

  • Observe Details

Observing Habitats

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Describe how different types of habitats support different forms of life.

  • Gather information about local animals and plants by observing the environment around them.




•  Have students think about the painting as a habitat in which plants and animals live.  Name animals and plants that might live in this setting, and list on the board to promote comparison.
•  Discuss how Signac would have painted the plants and animals listed, noting color, shape, texture, and brushstrokes.
•  Take a walk outside and look for plants and animals that live in the local habitat.
•  Describe how the local habitat is similar to and different from that portrayed in Signac’s painting and discuss why different animals and plants would live in the two different habitats.
•  From the information gathered on the walk, make a large class chart listing animals and plants found in the local habitat.
•  Have students illustrate the chart with drawings of the plants and animals they found on their walk.

The desire to rework ideas and the openness to a range of solutions are all part of the investigative scientific experience. Scientific investigations and reasoning are used to develop a rich knowledge of science and the natural world. Students must become familiar with different modes of scientific inquiry, rules of evidence, ways of formulating questions, ways of proposing explanations, and the diverse ways scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work.

  • Describe the brushstrokes in this painting, what do you notice about them? Do you think it was painted slowly and precisely or quickly and more rough? Why?

  • Paul Signac was one of the artists famous for a painting style called ‘Pointillism’, where objects are made up of tiny painted dots. Do you think this painting is a realistic rendition of a landscape scene?

  • Look at the artist’s use of lines in this painting. Describe lines: are they straight or curved? Horizontal, vertical or diagonal? What effect do the different lines have on the overall composition?

  • The composition conveys a sense of calm and harmony. This is partly achieved through the artist’s use of flowing lines and balancing of line. What other elements does Signac use to create a harmonious feeling? Look at the colors and the placement of the tree.

  • What color palette is used here? What mood do these colors create? What do you think was the time of day and the weather in this landscape scene?

  • In Pointillism there was as much attention on representative elements, such as rendering a scene realistically, as on formal elements, such as color and shapes. What stands out here: representational or formal elements or both? Explain your answer.

  • How does the Pointillist style work differently for more detailed objects, such as the tree, than for broader depictions such as the grass and the sky? Explain.

  • Divisionism refers to the dividing of color into parts. According to Divisionist theory, when two colors are placed next to each other, the eye mixes them to form a third color. Show examples of this in Signac’s painting.

  • The styles of Pointillism and Divisionism were meant to give a more scientific side to Impressionism. Explain this statement, comparing this painting with Impressionist artworks you know. Why is this painting more scientific? Do you think it can still be described as an Impressionist painting? Why?

  • In Pointillism, the dots and colors do not completely merge.  Instead, their juxtaposition creates a vibration that suggests sparkling sunlight. Describe this effect looking at particular details of this painting.

Pronounce the artist’s name:   See – nyack’


In 1892 Paul Signac moved to Saint Tropez, in the sough south of France.  He found the subject of this work, a giant umbrella pine, on the property of “a Monsieur Bonaventure” whose villa was located outside Saint Tropez.  To Signac, the large, spreading tree represented security, strength, and shelter.  The majestic tree rises in a sparkling landscape with water, sailboats, and mountains in the distance.

The spreading umbrella pine dominates the composition.  In this tree, Signac found the linear rhythms and abstract forms that he admired in Japanese art.  The outline of the entire tree sets the undulating rhythm of the painting.  Curving forms are repeated in the lines of the branches and in the small clumps of leaves.  Other landscape elements are simplified to offset the complex intertwining of tree limbs and leaves, and at the same time to repeat the overall curving shape.

Signac’s method of painting is called Divisionism or Pointillism.  The term “Pointillism” refers to the small “points” or uniform dots of color, uniform in size, that Signac applied to the canvas.  The term “Divisionism” refers to Signac’s “dividing” of color into its parts.  According to Divisionist theory, when two colors are placed next to each other, the eye mixes them to form a third color.  For instance, the viewer’s eye combines the red and blue dots in the lower left corner of this painting to create purple.  However, the dots do not completely merge.  Instead, their juxtaposition creates a vibration that suggests sparkling sunlight.  As Signac wrote in 1884, “I paint like this because it is the technique that seems to me best suited to give the most harmonious, the most luminous, the most colorful result”.1

Paul Signac was born in 1863 in Paris, where his father was a successful saddler.  After visiting the 1880 Impressionist exhibition, Signac decided to become an Impressionist painter.  He worked briefly with a teacher, but basically taught himself by painting outdoors along the Seine River.  In 1884 Signac met Georges Seurat, who was developing Divisionism, a style intended to make Impressionism more scientific.  Signac adopted Divisionism and, after Seurat’s death in 1891, became the leading proponent of this style of painting.  His successful career as a painter was complemented by his writings on art, including a number of important books and articles on nineteenth-century French painting.


1.  Quoted in Floyd Ratliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism

(New York:  The Rockefeller University Press, 1992), p. 192.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider