Félix Fénéon

Author: Samantha Posco

La Goulue dancing, by Toulouse-Lautrec (1895)
Oscar Wilde is the figure in the foreground on the left wearing the light overcoat; Fénéon is the man in the bottom right corner

“His sharp mind, bright and forecasting, troubled people. The self-insurance with which he related his ideas, shocking in their originality, exasperated his listeners and gave birth to vague, disturbing, anxious feeling of their own incompetence and inferiority.”
-Henri Purrchot (Olga’s Gallery)

Félix Fénéon was born in Turin, Italy but became one of the most important figures of fin de siècle France. As an art critic, Fénéon represented the end of impressionism and the beginning of “Neo-Impressionism” a term he coined himself. He promoted new techniques in art, such as Pointillism, a painting style created by Georges Seurat and maintained by Paul Signac. According to Hajo Duchting, “Fénéon was the only art critic who proved capable of articulating an appreciation for Seurat’s pictures, and the new method of painting it exemplified, in words notable for their objective tone.”(Dutching) Fénéon had no problem expressing his distaste of the French bourgeois and their inability to identify real art. He promoted the anarchist propaganda floating around Montmarte, France and believed that Parisian society’s ignorance of real artistry was justification enough for anarchical action.
Fénéon is often referred to as a “cultural terrorist”, one who promoted wild innovation in the form art. He was the quintessential master of disguise. By day he worked in France’s Department of War, translated Austen and Poe into French, “edited Rimbaud’s Illuminations, founded and edited literary magazines including Revue Blanche, worked as a journalist for Le Figaro and interviewed elite cultural figures such as Jules Verne.” (Mr. Whiskets) In the light of the sun Fénéon was a typical Frenchman, but at night when he retired to his home in Montmarte, he became the bohemian dandy who exuded innovation and desired to conquer the social norms of his era. Fénéon is the perfect model of fin de siècle psychology; he represented what many cultures feared the most in this changing time, hidden threats. Much like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” Félix Fénéon blended into Parisian life and culture, but his ideas were infectious, inspiring new modes of art and thought.

Mugshot of Fénéon,1894

In the summer of 1894, Félix Fénéon was put on trial with thirty ill-assorted men accused of anarchist leanings and treasonable acts.” (Tyler) Fénéon was charged and tried due to evidence found in his office. “Part of the evidence against him was that a police search of his office had turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing 11 detonators.”(Tyler) During the trial Fénéon gave one of the greatest testimonies in history, staying cool, collected and rather sarcastic. Only three men were convicted of anarchist activity. 

Paul Signac, Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890    

In this painting Signac depicts this unconventional and enigmatic personality with his characteristic goatee, holding a top hat and a walking stick in one hand and a flower in the other. Combining figuration and abstraction, he sets Fénéon's static profile against a swirling background—a kaleidoscopic depiction of optical theorist Charles Henry's recently published color wheel. A similar playfulness underlies the exceedingly long title, possibly a spoof on scientific terminology.” (from the MoMA website) 

Novels in Three Lines – Compiled by Luc Sante
This book is a compilation of the writing Fénéon did for Le Matin newspaper after his own periodical folded. According to the New York Review Books, “Luc Sante has selected the best Fénéons vignettes of the darker side of life- adultery, murder, revenge, labor unrest and suicide- in early 20th century France.”

Websites for Further Exploration

Bibliography for Further Exploration  

1) Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénéon, and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle – David Sweetman

2) Novels in Three Lines (New York Book Reviews Classics) – Félix Fénéon (Author) Luc Sante (Introduction)

3) The Life of the City: Aesthetics of Existence in Fin- de-Siècle Montmartre- Julian John Alasdair Brigstocke
4) Félix Fénéon and the Language of Art Criticism- Joan U. Halperin
5) Félix Fénéon: Aesthete & Anarchist in Fin-de-Siecle Paris- Joan U. Halperin

Works Cited
 Dutching, Hajo. Seurat. Cologne: Taschen, 2000. Print.
"Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum." Olga's Gallery. 1 Aug. 2002. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://www.abcgallery.com/>.
Whiskets. "Novels in Three Lines: Félix Fénéon." 5B4. Blogspot, 26 Feb. 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <http://5b4.blogspot.com/2009/02/novels-in-three-lines-by-Félix-Fénéon.html>.

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