Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon by Paul Signac

Museum of Modern Art /Paige Knight/© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

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, 1890

“Several friends had told me that he had died, others thought he might still be alive but hiding somewhere.” With those words John Rewald, the pioneering historian of Impressionism and Postimpressionism, opened a long essay on Félix Fénéon, an uncategorizable figure in French literary, artistic, and political circles who had died in 1944 at the age of eighty-three. Writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1947, Rewald recalled how a decade earlier an acquaintance had suggested he look up Fénéon in the phone book. It hadn’t occurred to him that this ubiquitous presence in fin-de-siècle Paris, who had known artists and writers from Seurat and Verlaine to Matisse and Valéry, would be hiding in plain sight. But there was a telephone number. Soon Rewald was making the first of many visits to Fénéon’s home on the avenue de l’Opéra in the heart of Paris, where “an asthmatic elevator” took him “way up under the roof of a large, silent apartment house.” He was greeted by “a tall and bony man with a stern face on which he produced somehow an encouraging smile.” Fénéon’s apartment was chockablock with the extraordinary collection of art that he had built over a lifetime spent nourishing the hopes and dreams of the avant-garde. There were works, some of them masterworks, by Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Bonnard, Vuillard, Signac, Renoir, and Degas, together with an important collection of African sculpture.

An argument can be made that Fénéon is still hiding in plain sight, although, however marginal his reputation has been in the United States, he has long had a following in France. In Paris last year, a two-part exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac and the Musée de l’Orangerie brought Fénéon’s variegated achievements to the attention of a wider public.* In the United States, where his Novels in Three Lines, in a translation by Luc Sante, received a good deal of attention a decade ago, a version of the Parisian show was slated to open at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s not clear what will become of it, with MoMA’s plans, like those of every other cultural institution, in a holding pattern owing to the coronavirus. But whatever its fate in New York, where it has been called “Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond,” the catalog is now available. The current moment, when pressing social, environmental, and political concerns can leave artistic life looking beleaguered, seems right to examine his wide-ranging and sometimes incendiary artistic and political involvements.

Fénéon is not a simple case. In appearance he was tall, lean, elegant, a sort of austere Baudelairean dandy. A wide circle of friends found him genial, superhumanly energetic, and generous to a fault. In his writings for the journals large and small that proliferated in Paris in the late nineteenth century, he avoided the panoramic view and the definitive statement. He was from the first an enigma, and the enigma only deepens when we consider that this art critic, literary editor, prose writer of distinction, and successful promoter of avant-garde artists at an important Parisian gallery was also an anarchist who almost certainly planted a bomb that was meant to kill people. I say “almost certainly” because Fénéon’s political actions and beliefs, like many of his artistic opinions, aren’t always easy to pin down. This promoter and proselytizer on behalf of all sorts of artistic, literary, and political activities was determined to take many of his secrets to the grave.

The story of Fénéon’s early years in the provinces and arrival in Paris in 1881 at the age of twenty could come out of the pages of any number of nineteenth-century novels. Joan Ungersma Halperin, whose Félix Fénéon: Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (1988) is a beautifully nuanced picture of the early years of the modern movement, says that Jules Fénéon, Félix’s father, came from an unexceptional Burgundian family of “merchants, ribbon manufacturers, peasants, and civil servants, with an occasional religious vocation for a daughter inevitably named ‘Félicie.’” Jules was working as a traveling salesman in Turin when his son was born. He doesn’t seem to have made much of a career for himself after the family’s return to France, although he tried various things. The boy’s Swiss-born mother, Marie-Louise, was in Halperin’s estimation the pillar of the family; as Félix was growing up in the vicinity of Lyons, she found a job in the post office, which was, according to Halperin, “one of the first institutions to open white-collar jobs to women.” After school and compulsory military service, Félix took a competitive examination and received a job in the War Office in Paris. For more than a decade that civil service post provided a reliable financial foundation for his adventures among the city’s literary, artistic, and political avant-garde.


The sharp, savory, and even astringent sides of art and life were more often than not what engaged Fénéon as he took in the great feast of Belle Époque Paris. Among his many distinctions as an editor was to put together the first edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, in which the poet spoke of having seen enough and had enough, and the first gathering of Jules Laforgue’s final poems, with their images of spiderwebs, smokestacks, and pouring rain. While Fénéon’s interest in the paintings of Vuillard and Bonnard suggests a sympathy for much that was sweet, rich, and voluptuous in the French culture of his day, the contemporary artist with whom he seems to have felt the deepest sympathy was Seurat, who brought to his cityscapes, landscapes, and figures a cool eloquence. In the angular austerity of the sculpture of Africa, of which Fénéon was an early and avid connoisseur, he must have seen a welcome riposte to the gilded luxuriance of the fin de siècle. As for Fénéon’s own writing, what is most immediately memorable and remarkable is its quick, jabbing, subtle wit.

This man was so enchanted with the great experiment of modernity that his own tastes, whatever they might have been, could sometimes take a back seat to his desire to be in the midst of new developments. Like many great editors, he cultivated a behind-the-scenes influence. By the beginning of the 1890s he had been a founder, editor, or contributor at a succession of reviews, including La Libre Revue, La Revue indépendante, La Vogue, L’Émancipation sociale, Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui, La Revue exotique, La Cravache, L’Art moderne, Art et critique, Entretiens politiques et littéraires, La Paix, and Le Chat noir. Among the writers Fénéon was involved with in those years, both as an editor and a friend, were Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Huysmans. Many of these publications were dedicated to new developments in the arts, often the Symbolist movement among poets and painters, which sought to wrest from personal images and impressions new forms of expression—what Baudelaire, years earlier in his poem “Correspondences,” had referred to as a “forest of symbols.” Other magazines with which Fénéon was closely engaged embraced a turn to anarchism among a younger generation that despaired of the grinding poverty of so many in France and the failure of even apparently well-intentioned politicians to create a more just or equitable society.

Fénéon wrote art criticism only for a relatively brief period in the 1880s and early 1890s. But these were years of dramatic developments in the visual arts, and he found himself speaking for a group of painters who wanted to give more structure and design to the flickering vistas and full-strength colors that Monet had introduced in the 1870s. In 1886, writing about the second Salon des indépendants, Fénéon discussed the new pointillist technique and coined the term “Neo-Impressionist.” Not long before, he had gotten to know Seurat, the young man who was the leader of the movement, as well as Pissarro, Signac, and others who were deeply affected by his ideas. Among the many visual testaments to Fénéon’s friendships with artists is one of the more significant works in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection: the portrait that Signac made of him in 1890, in which he is seen in profile against a backdrop of careening patterns and colors. In 1884 Fénéon had been impressed by the elegant composition of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, and in 1886 he wrote about an even more intricately plotted masterwork, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. From Seurat’s untimely death in 1891 to his own more than half a century later, he did whatever possible to assure the legacy of an artist whose true greatness was for some years grasped by only a few.

Fénéon had arrived in Paris a decade after the collapse of the Commune, and almost from the beginning he had found attachments among men who felt desperate to turn those shattered hopes into new programs for action. In unsigned magazine columns he reported on workers’ strikes and anarchist activities. He rejected socialist efforts at political reform and wrote with sympathy about anarchist bombings, even those that led to loss of life. In the early 1890s he was more than a bystander and a commentator; to one degree or another he was involved with anarchist circles and clandestine political activities, some of a violent nature.


In 1892 Fénéon gave Émile Henry, a friend who was planning an anarchist bombing in support of a group of miners, one of his mother’s dresses to use as a disguise; the effort to defuse the bomb resulted in the deaths of an office boy and five police officers. In February 1894 Henry set off another bomb in the Café Terminus in Paris, which was frequented by ordinary Parisians who had little or no part in shaping government or social policy; the attack wounded twenty people, one of whom died. Fénéon, in a conversation with Signac, said that he approved of this sort of violence: “The anarchist acts of terrorism have done a lot more for propaganda than twenty years of pamphlets by Reclus or Kropotkin.” Most historians who have looked at the evidence agree that it’s almost certain that two months later it was Fénéon who planted a bomb on a windowsill of the Restaurant Foyot, an elegant Parisian spot near the Luxembourg Gardens. The only person injured was Laurent Tailhade, an anarchist who was a friend of Fénéon’s. He lost an eye but seems to have stood by a comment he had made earlier: “What matter the victims, if the gesture is beautiful!”

The police had been watching Fénéon for some time, and soon after the bombing his apartment and office were searched. Just outside his office they found a box of detonators and some mercury, materials that could be used for making a bomb; it is thought that he was hiding them for a friend. This was the end of Fénéon’s career at the War Office. He landed in jail, where he spent the time until his trial learning English and producing a translation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. That August he emerged as the star defendant in the Trial of the Thirty, which, for lack of evidence, saw most of the defendants acquitted of charges of anarchism.

Fénéon’s responses to his questioners during the trial have taken on, at least among his admirers, some of the mythic quality of Oscar Wilde’s quips. When accused of speaking with two people behind a lamppost, Fénéon responded, “Can you tell me, Your Honor, where behind a lamppost is?” When it was said that he was intimate friends with a German anarchist, he reflected that “the intimacy could not have been very great. I do not know a word of German and he does not speak French.” When there was a discussion as to whether Fénéon’s father might have found the incriminating detonators “in the street,” the magistrate observed that “one does not find detonators in the street!” Fénéon, never at a loss, pointed out that the examining magistrate had actually said to him, “You should have thrown those detonators out the window!”—in which case they would have landed in the street where somebody could have found them.

The Trial of the Thirty marked the end of a period of anarchist violence in France. Fénéon lived for another half-century, but he didn’t speak much about the violence in which he had participated, although it seems that late in life he told at least one person that he had planted a bomb. Fénéon’s legal fees were paid by Thadée Natanson, a revered figure in literary and artistic circles who was also a lawyer. After his acquittal, Fénéon became the editor of La Revue blanche, the magazine bankrolled by the Natanson family that played a critical part in the modern movement in the years around 1900. Fénéon drew close to Bonnard and Vuillard, whose paintings of Natanson, his wife Misia, and their circle are an imperishable record of an avant-garde utopia that vanished with the onslaught of World War I. From La Revue blanche Fénéon went on to the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, where he was regarded as something of a genius at promoting the artists who meant so much to him; while continuing to support the Postimpressionist generation, he advocated for Matisse and the Italian Futurists.

Fénéon’s life, extraordinary in every way, resists easy summation. When he suggested, on more than one occasion, that he would be content to disappear without a trace, he may have felt that he was only accepting the inevitable; an achievement so various and even diffuse was bound to count for little in the judgment of history. But far from disappearing, Fénéon has come more and more into focus since his death, with the publication of significant collections of his writings, a number of critical texts, and now these exhibitions. If there is one theme that nearly everybody who has approached this challenging subject is forced to confront, it’s the extent to which we can reconcile Fénéon’s artistic and political interests and allegiances.

In the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, the curators in charge—Starr Figura of MoMA and Isabelle Cahn and Philippe Peltier, who headed the Parisian effort—argue for the overarching coherence of Fénéon’s outlook. They assert that everything he did was

informed by an extraordinarily radical, forward-looking worldview in which avant-garde art and radical politics were two sides of the same coin, both having the potential to transform the world for the better.

There is no question that Fénéon made more than a few statements that would lead one to this conclusion. He was certainly sympathetic to some works of art, including Maximilien Luce’s Man Washing, that showcased precisely the proletarian struggles that many anarchists believed could only be resolved through radical action. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to ascribe some single, unified identity to Fénéon, when much of what’s fascinating about him is his capacity for thinking and feeling in various ways. Halperin seems closer to the mark in her biographical study, where she writes

Fénéon’s anarchism did not require that art or literature be shaped to serve as “instruments of the revolution” as was suggested, for example, by Kropotkin. Those who would promote anarchism could use more direct and effective means, while real art, new art, was revolutionary in itself.

The more I look at Fénéon’s achievement, the more I’m inclined to focus on the differences rather than the similarities between the revolutions he embraced in art and politics.

Model in Profile; painting by Georges-Pierre Seurat

Musée d’Orsay, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Adrien Didierjean

Georges-Pierre Seurat: Model in Profile, 1886

For Fénéon, whose reputation as an art critic will stand or fall on his discussion of the transition from Impressionism to the work of Seurat and the other artists he referred to as Neo-Impressionists, what was essential to the new style was the emphasis on stability and timelessness. If this was a revolution, it was one that sought a kind of order—which was not, at least in the short run, what interested the anarchists. While the Impressionists, when they painted from nature, wanted, according to Fénéon, “to prove that the moment was unique and would never be seen again,” the Neo-Impressionists valued “distance from the accidental and the transitory.” They aimed to give landscapes and figures “a permanent pose that perpetuates the sensation they give.” For Seurat and his cohort, who were interested in new scientific ideas about color perception, “objective reality is simply a theme for the creation of a higher, sublimated reality, suffused with their own personality.” One can argue that Seurat’s insistence on the scientific basis of his pointillist technique has parallels in the socialist’s or anarchist’s desire to discover some fundamental principles that shape social injustice. And one might want to associate Seurat’s interest in root causes or principles with a similar strain in radical thinking. But this line of argument can be taken too far.

Seurat was a classicist. He believed that quotidian experience had to be subjected to the underlying, idealized geometry of a composition. Classicism is rooted in an acceptance of the yoke of tradition. Fénéon was acknowledging just that when he commented of Seurat that “we will call [him] Poussin”—who is, of course, the central figure in the French classical tradition. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is a painting of a particular time that also defines a time outside of time. There is reason to believe that Fénéon was less sympathetic to some of Seurat’s later works, in which he engaged with the swirling, rococo, utterly au courant rhythms of Jules Chéret and other poster artists, than he was to the processional lucidity of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, in which Parisian life takes on some of the fixity of the Panathenaic frieze on the Parthenon.

Among the works that Fénéon treasured to the end of his life were three studies of a nude woman that Seurat had made as preparations for his monumental Les Poseuses, now in the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. Here the bustling studio life of late-nineteenth-century Paris is granted an almost ceremonial attention. The hardworking model in the three studies isn’t so much painted in prismatic colors as carved in Attic marble. Fénéon commented that one of the little studies for this great painting “would glorify the haughtiest museums.”

We cannot entirely avoid using terms such as “radical” and “conservative” when we talk about the arts, but the relationship between them in artistic and political and social discourse is hazy at best. Halperin argues that Fénéon had a distaste for caricature, except as an instrument of social critique. There is reason to believe that he found too much of a caricatural edge in Gauguin’s self-portraits. Despite his passionate engagement with the sculpture of Africa, Fénéon was unimpressed by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, remarking to the artist that “you should stick to caricature”—in other words, to the graphic arts rather than painting. Fénéon was hardly the only sophisticated observer who had reservations about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—both Braque and Matisse were apparently uneasy—and he may have felt more of an affinity with the cooler sensibilities of the 1880s and 1890s, those of Seurat and Signac especially, than with the overheated rhetoric of Van Gogh and Gauguin. This is not to say that he didn’t recognize the authority of their work. But Fénéon probably did not mean it as a high compliment when he characterized Van Gogh’s The Starry Night as “eccentric.”

If there is something that unites Fénéon’s artistic, literary, and political interests, perhaps we had best look for it not in the history of ideas but in his psyche and sensibility. His thinking, while hardly without its analytical dimensions, may have more than anything else been fueled by a kind of Baudelairean comedy of dagger-quick thrusts, witty asides, and exquisite masquerades. Fénéon hungered for a lucidity that defied comprehension. What he was after was closer to a flash of lightning than an explication de texte. In the most striking of his writings, lucidity approaches a kind of genial madness. You find an almost blinding brightness in the miniature biographies of his contemporaries that he wrote for Petit Bottin des lettres et des arts in 1886 and in the stories based on true events that he published in Le Matin in 1906. In his portraits of his contemporaries it is as if he has taken a more complete biography, shattered it, and then picked out the bits and pieces and held them up to the light to see how they glitter and gleam. Here is his portrait of Degas, whom he admired:

A thigh, a flower, a chignon, ballerinas convoluted in the flurry of the tutu; the nose of a tippler; race horses and jockeys turning on the green; the hand of a milliner amidst a fluttering of feathers and ribbons; painted waxworks that live. Unerring kinematics. The tricks of artificial lights taken by surprise. The expression of Modernity.

When he wrote about the literary critic Hippolyte Taine, he turned what Taine meant to be a scientific study of literature into something out of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory:

Applies to literary history the techniques of agronomy. For any given country studies soil chemistry, topography, and climate, then treats a generation of artists like a crop of mushrooms, beets, sycamores and Brussels sprouts.

With Fénéon, who dedicated so much of his life to editorial work, the editor’s urge to cut away the fat could be carried so far that he was left with only a skeleton. For his Novels in Three Lines he took what was a traditional form of brief journalistic report and, at least in some cases, ingeniously reimagined the news of the day as an absurdist allegory. A journalist said that Fénéon had found a way to “multiply the banal by the tragic.” Here are four of these little stories:

Having just sniffed a pinch of snuff, A. Chevrel sneezed and, falling from the hay wagon he was bringing back from Pervenchères, Orne, died.

Six bulls were impaled, at Nîmes, by the Madrid matadors Machaquito and Regasterín, to the advantage of the local press.

Since Delorce left her, Cécile Ward had refused to take him back unless he married her. Finding this stipulation unacceptable, he stabbed her.

There was a gas explosion at the home of Larrieux, in Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law’s hair caught on fire. The ceiling caved in.

The comedy of these journalistic jeux d’esprit is inseparable from their clarity. We are shown things very clearly, and yet they do not yield any particular sense. Cubism was in its infancy when Fénéon produced his little stories in 1906, but there is some kinship with the Cubist collages that Picasso and Braque produced six years later, often with pieces of newsprint. Like Fénéon, Picasso and Braque used their shredded journalism to produce effects that are simultaneously elegant, funny, and saturnine. Fénéon’s prose style, whether in portraits of his contemporaries or reports on current events, is somewhere in the background of the tragicomic storytelling of writers as various as Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.

Alfred Jarry, a friend of Fénéon’s and the inventor of that immortal comic character Ubu Roi, once said that “laughter is born out of the discovery of the contradictory.” It may be that it was the comedy of contradiction, more than any artistic or political idea, that sustained Fénéon through a life of almost miraculous generosity and productivity. That sense of comedy made it possible for him to embrace the experimentation of the Symbolists without succumbing to the sacerdotal mists that sank so much of the movement. What was altogether admirable in his view of the arts was his aversion to bombast and his esteem for the force of the particular. He recognized in Seurat’s classicism a rage for clarity.

When it came to politics, some similar feeling for the clarity or particularity of an act may have led him to embrace the anarchist attacks that actually killed and maimed people. I believe there was no excuse for those acts or for those who condoned them, whether their targets were politicians or ordinary citizens. It’s horrifying to imagine that Fénéon might have viewed his assault on the Restaurant Foyot as some sort of cosmic-comic gesture. Such behavior cannot be reconciled with his steady support of the reputation of Seurat, whose work he selflessly cataloged, nourished, and looked after in the long decades after the artist’s early death. Fénéon is far from being the only person in whom we find both morally exemplary and morally repugnant qualities. He mocks our hunger for definitive conclusions and reminds us that we are all too eager to tie everything together in a neat package.